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The Downside of Innovation

business transformation change management leadership well-being Dec 04, 2020

The well-known phrase “adapt or die” describes how innovation is necessary for business survival.  Whether it is driven by external factors such as increased competition or internal factors such as advancements in technology, innovation is how companies evolve and find ways to continue to drive revenue in an ever-changing market.

This year, the idiom has taken on a whole new meaning. Organizations across industries have had to fire, furlough, or close their doors entirely due to the repercussions from the pandemic on their business operations and inability to adapt. 

Companies that have survived have had to rapidly innovate to ensure workers could continue to do their jobs and meet end user needs. This in turn has required employees to rapidly learn, change and adapt to their new reality, all on top of doing their day-to-day work.

Innovation creates disruption, and that has repercussions too. The most common side effect at the individual level is stress or worse, burnout. In 2019, burnout was officially recognized by the World Health Organization as an occupational phenomenon or “syndrome” resulting from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”.

Unfortunately, chronic workplace stress is on the rise. Workforce studies report almost 40% of workers experience extreme stress daily. Women and younger workers seem to be affected disproportionately. This is unsettling, considering the pace of change is not slowing down.   

Change is difficult in a “normal” business environment, and the fatigue caused by the pandemic is real. So, what does this mean for employers? Perhaps it is time companies rethink their innovation strategies and invest in understanding the impact of more change on an overwhelmed workforce.  

The Rise of the Strategic Change Leader

Organizations that ignore the cumulative impact of internal and external changes on employees will not achieve the innovation or outcomes necessary for business survival. Skill development for leaders and managers will be critical for success.

A recent study done by Coursera, one of the largest online learning platforms in the world, identified leadership and change management as essential skills for managers in the future. The good news is that most managers are well-versed in leadership development. The bad news is that managers also think they do change management well, but often they do not. 

Change management is the strategic practice of assessing and managing the impact innovation and disruption has on workers. Whereas managers excel at effectively leading projects and changes within their lane, strategic change leaders understand this is not enough. They have a global view of the organization and are aware of the universe of activities happening at any given time. Prioritization and planning are done in collaboration with other leaders and teams, and employee impacts remain front and center.    

Business managers are trained to make decisions using logic and rationale. Strategic change leaders use both objective and subjective sources of information to guide decision making. For example, an organizational assessment is a tool to evaluate employee “readiness”. It looks at past experiences, current circumstances, and other attributes that are hard to accurately quantify. The output is meant to provide direction and alignment versus proof of the best answer, which is more realistic when dealing with so much uncertainty. 

It' is clear innovation is necessary for business survival, but it does not serve its purpose if the organization is not ready for change. Thus, the most prudent decision leaders make now may be to push pause on future innovation and recalibrate their understanding of the current state. If the assessment reveals the company is not ready for another change, addressing the underlying issues that create workplace stress – such as unmanageable workloads, work-life imbalance, and disruption overload – can be the smartest, most innovative idea yet.    

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