The paradox of the pandemic in driving innovation: survive or thrive

July 8, 2020

As Ellen Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard University says: “You can’t solve today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions.” And yet strangely enough, so many of us are trying to do just that.

Wherever I turn, I hear people saying: “when things go back to normal.” The thing is whether we like it or not, there is no going back. The world has changed in fundamental ways and if we want to stay ahead, then we need to change too. The question is: are our changes just helping us to survive, or positioning us to thrive?

For those of us that work in the social innovation and systems change space (see image below), the silver lining of the pandemic is that it has created the best possible conditions for innovation — a completely unprecedented change in landscape conditions that opens up windows of opportunity for innovation to enter into the mainstream in just about every sector and industry you can imagine.

But the fear and uncertainty generated by the pandemic has also put many of us into survival mode — driven by our reptilian brain and its fight, flight or freeze programming. When our reptilian brains take over, it limits our ability for decision making, creative problem solving, advanced planning, visionary thinking and complex social interactions (you can read more about that here). In short, it limits our ability to create and innovate.

This is the Pandemic Paradox.
Multi-level perspective on system innovations by Rene Kemp and Frank Geels

In most workplaces, the changes I see are about surviving — adaptations to meet current constraints (like working-from-home) and postponing business-as-usual until “after COVID”. This is reptilian-brain thinking. But by clinging so strongly to the past, we are unintentionally pouring more energy into what was, instead of channeling it strategically toward what could be. Wasn’t it just yesterday when we all dreamed of a better future? Whether it was a better work-life balance, more impactful work, an education system that better prepared our kids for 21st Century challenges, or more inclusive businesses —  we cannot forget those dreams when faced by our fears because now is the time for change, and this is an opportunity not to be missed.

So how do we transition ourselves and our business from surviving to thriving?

I believe that it is with better questions and less answers.

Crafting Good Questions

When it comes to being creative, you will often hear people talk about “thinking outside the box.” But that is surprisingly difficult to do. As creatures of habit, humans have habitual brains — skillfully routinized manners of thought. Think of it like a dirt road with deep ruts. Our minds happily travel up and down those roads and often the ruts become so deep it’s difficult to get out. Our fallback tool for being creative in the workplace is the brainstorm, which is not creative at all — especially when we apply the rule of “no discussion”. It doesn’t get us out of the rut, but just makes a space where we each get to describe the scenery we see along our particular thinking-route.

In my coaching and innovation workshops, I use different lateral thinking techniques like provocations, metaphor and other tools such as those developed by lateral thinking pioneer Edward De Bono to throw a tree across the proverbial road and get folks thinking creatively. It can be surprisingly uncomfortable at first, but my clients have never once been disappointed by the thinking and questions that are generated through the process.

Avoiding The Answer Trap

On the other side of crafting good questions is avoiding The Answer Trap. For many of us, not knowing something leads to uncertainty, uncertainty leads to discomfort, and discomfort is not a state that we naturally seek. This means that subconsciously, we limit ourselves to asking questions that can be readily answered within the bounds of what we already know. Getting comfortable with not knowing and using questions not to generate answers but to provoke further mind-opening inquiry can unlock powerful thinking and innovative ideas.

Questions in Motion

When you put these two concepts together, you can start to develop what I call Questions-in-Motion. Questions-in-Motion are powerful, “live” questions that can make the impossible possible, and shift our thinking and actions from surviving to thriving. Here are a few key characteristics of Questions-in-Motion along with some examples of questions from work I have been involved with over the last few months:

  1. A question-in-motion points to the future, whereas an answer lies in the past

    One of my favorite questions to come out of a workshop recently was “What would we do differently if our organization was started today?” This kind of question is fantastic for letting go of hangovers from the past (we do it this way because we have always done it this way), and taking advantage of the unique opportunity presented in this moment.
  2. A question-in-motion helps us to surface our underlying frameworks and assumptions that limit creative thinking

    Learning to see and recognize the assumptions that come from the context in which we operate can be difficult, but we can use questions-in-motion to interrogate “normal” questions and uncover these assumptions. For example, one of the most common questions I hear in a business-as-usual scenario is: “How do we reach more clients/beneficiaries? or “How do we generate more sales?” Underlying this question is the assumption that more is better — an assumption strongly tied to our current economic model of infinite growth. From this line of inquiry, a whole different set of questions can arise. One from a recent workshop: “what kind of growth model best reflects our core values and beliefs as an organization?”
  3. A question-in-motion helps us to separate and identify pain points and get clarity on what we are trying to solve

    Often the questions we ask ourselves are born of frustration, and a compounding of problems generated from the status quo. But not being clear about the pain we are solving makes it difficult for the question to generate forward-thinking insights that will lead to good solutions. Take for example what could arguably be one of the most commonly asked questions over the last few months: “when can my kids go back to school?” This question represents at least two different pain points: that of parents trying to work from home and watch their children at the same time, and a concern for parents to ensure that their children get a good education. We can then separate and reframe the questions: What is the best way to structure the demands in my life so I can do the work that is important to me with ease? In what ways could my children be learning now that would help them build the knowledge and skills to thrive in this world?

    In doing this, we open up the possibility for a more constructive and empowering line of inquiry that puts power back into the hands of the questioner.
  4. A question-in-motion helps to shift emotion and unlock limits to current thinking

    Often without realizing, the questions we ask make us feel disempowered. In the last example, asking “When can my kids go back to school?” places all power for resolving that question out of the hands of the questioner (the parents). Questions-in-motion empower the person asking the question and can have an incredible emotional effect. In a recent workshop that I ran, participants reported changes in appetite, energy levels, exercise routines and personal relationships, all inspired from a shift around the kinds of questions they were asking in their work. As one participant commented: “this is the first time I have felt empowered and in control since the COVID outbreak began.”
  5. A question-in-motion generates powerful avenues of inquiry

    In a recent workshop with a fundraising team for an NGO we used a provocation technique to look at how the organization was fundraising. In this provocation, we flipped the norm over and explored the questions that then came up. This is what it looks like in practice:

    Norm: Foundations post a Call for Proposals for NGOs to apply for money for grants.

    Provocation: what if the NGO put out a Call for Proposals, inviting Foundations to apply if they wanted to invest in a partnership under the NGO’s conditions?

    It’s a bold question, and definitely out-of-the-box thinking! Rather than using this kind of question to give an answer, it was then used to raise powerful and provocative questions about the limitations of current grant processes and funding models and the power dynamics that exist in fundraising, as well as helping the NGO think through what a perfect Foundation “candidate” would be. It is these kinds of questions that are leading to more systemic-level changes for the social sector at large, such as the trust-based philanthropy movement and other changes that Darren Walker talks about in his new book From Generosity to Justice.

What does this mean for you and your work? Are the questions you are asking positioning you to thrive, or just survive? What questions could you ask today that could fundamentally change the game tomorrow?

I offer one-on-one coaching as well as workshops and training programs for individuals, teams and organizations. If you’d like to learn more about innovating during a global pandemic or to find out how we can work together, feel free to contact me directly .

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