“We will avoid innovation like the plague, until there’s an actual plague” is not part of any organization’s Mission statement. Despite decades of talk about support for innovative ideas, better ways of doing things are routinely ignored or actively discouraged. The reality of life in ordinary times is that having good intentions is rarely enough to spark change.

Bridging the Say–Do Gap
What’s different now? What can we learn from a situation that has lead people to collaborate in new ways and encouraged them to proceed with incomplete information?

Under normal conditions, humans have a habit of putting up with dysfunctional ways of doing things. They work around obstacles rather than figuring out how to remove rocks in the road. This doesn’t happen because people are lazy or lack imagination. It happens because most jobs focus on making minor improvements to the status quo, rather than re-thinking how things are done. People are paid to manage—rather than solve—chronic problems in the system.

This pandemic has exposed gaps in our social contract while showing us that we really can get beyond analysis paralysis. United by a shared purpose, people have been given a new license to take action.

What’s different now:

1. Doing nothing is the less attractive option
When forced to take action, we have an excuse to proceed without proof and predictability. Eye-rolling talk about “driving innovation” (really?) and “thinking outside the box” blather is not needed when people are actually let out of the box. Suddenly, solutions appear to problems that were once considered unsolvable.

2. Empathy is setting us free
The best way to discover new possibilities for moving forward is to see things from every stakeholder’s point of view. This perspective creates true consultative collaboration and real partnerships vs. empty words.

3. Fear of criticism is dissolving
Chronic naysayers are being overwhelmed by people with a can-do spirit. Rigid for-or-against barriers are being broken down. Trying things and learning-in-action is becoming the new normal.

We have a long way to go to achieve a respectful social contract that provides equal opportunity for all. But instead of being hindered by past obsessions with predictability and proof of concept, we’ve been forced to stretch our thinking with new kinds of conversations that make good things happen.

-Sharon VanderKaay