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A Meetup for Innovation Practitioners – A Social Innovation Lesson and Reminder of the Importance of Empathy for all Innovation Managers

Posted 4 years ago

The turbulence due to COVID-19 has impacted most businesses. Our data indicates at least 80% of businesses and organisations in Australia have changed the way they are now operating. This is certainly true for organisations like Unisson Disability that have a strong duty of care to very vulnerable clients, as Michelle Carlye, General Manager Business Development & Innovation, shared during a recent Meetup. This is a summary of the Meetup for Innovation Managers and the insights shared will remind everyone of the importance of empathy. Not only in innovation, but in business operations as well.

Unisson Disability employs over 700 people and offers a wide range of support services, including housing, work placement, skills development, and social activities. Unisson predominately supports people with intellectual disabilities. The meetup heard about the innovation at Unisson and actions put in place in response to COVID-19. The first insight, and arguably the most important, that Michelle shared was Unisson’s focus on client need, “So, when it comes to what actions we had to put in place. There are no real ifs or buts. It has to happen when clients are the absolute central focus of every single thing that you do”.

This is the primary principle that every landing pad, incubator, accelerator, or design-led or agile innovation course will attempt to drum into their participants’ heads. That is, what is the customer need. We were fortunate to see how this played out in a ‘for purpose’ organisation.

Unisson, like many other teams, took early action in response to the threat of COVID-19. They formed a series of, what they called, “sub-programs” to manage the number of actions they needed to take. Mangers worked around the clock to implement the necessary actions. This included immediate social distancing, developing and actioning PPE protocols, setting-up, and testing isolation units, stopping programs (some had up to 60 people interacting), and this had to be implemented at over 50 sites.

Before COVID-19 Michelle was developing tools and systems to support and harness a culture of innovation within Unisson. Whilst these systems weren’t in full operation before COVID-19. Michelle explained that innovation occurred more organically, without “formal processes as such”. However, there were other key innovation ingredients in action. Including a strong focus on employee support and good communication.

Michelle explained they also had to ensure their staff was safe. The service to clients fundamentally depends on this. With everyone now working remotely and dealing with the stress and uncertainty of COVID-19, a range of positive initiatives were introduced. Including regular ‘pulse checks’ with staff to keep connected. Also, appreciation of staff effort is being demonstrated through gift vouchers, as well as via a weekly gratitude journal. It was noted that a regular Zoom ‘pulse check’ with a staff member improved the quality of the connection from the more ad-hoc office corridor check-in.

The other key ingredient was effective communication. The response teams used a common communication tool to ensure there was no duplication of effort or resource use. And clear communication channels were established to support rapid decision making. Which, of course, is required to enable rapid action.

The meetup group was fortunate to have heard these insights. Not only outlining the actions of an agile and well-functioning organisation but demonstrating the behaviours that underpin effective innovation – absolute client focus, empathy, and support for staff, and, effective communication.

COVID-19 is the crisis that exposed this behaviour; however, these are the behaviours that promote and support rapid change and innovation under any circumstance. The meet-up discussion that followed the Q+A with Michelle did pose the question – How do we keep these practices in our respective organisations post COVID-19? There was a strong sentiment that it would be ideal if “new norms” included greater recognition of innovation activities and teams! This sounds like a topic for a future Meetup… stay tuned.

To conclude, let us revisit the most important insight. One that is the core of good innovation practice. Certainly, a central focus for innovation managers who subscribe to customer-led or design-led innovation practices. That is the need to deeply understand the feelings of our customers.  In other words, have empathy for customers, to better provide for them.

Michelle demonstrated this and much more with her statement, “Clients are central focus at Unisson. They’re there at the heart of absolutely every single decision that’s made.”

Impact Innovation is hosting a regular meet-up series to support Innovation Managers as part of a response to COVID-19. The series enables mangers of innovation to share insights and challenges. What we’re seeing is that the group is offering peer support and helping solve problems. If you are responsible for running an innovation or commercialisation programs and would like to join the group, click here. You will also be able to access the recording of the previous event.