We Haven't Been Here Before: An Audacious Journey to Innovation In A VUCA World

Three key design practices for embracing person-centricity and creating the conditions for continuous innovation.

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Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor
Managing vice president for Pariveda‘s San Francisco Bay Area market
7 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

The Covid-19 pandemic’s ongoing effects across societies and economies are upending long-held simplifying models and assumptions about our complex world. We feel as if we are in a perpetual state of disequilibrium and are searching for stability and predictability. The uncomfortable truth is that we’ve never been here before and leaders have very few proven best practices to apply.

We typically approach innovation with the mindset of transforming from one known static state to the next predicted static state. Instead, we need to recognize that we live in an unpredictable, dynamic system featuring many unknowns. With this understanding, we can proactively build our capability to react and respond to signals, emerging threats and opportunities. As entrepreneurs, we can endeavor to continuously sense, learn, adapt and innovate.

Related: Innovate or Die

Adaptability and resilience are not mindsets or cultures. Instead, they are distinct properties of complex systems — whether that system is an individual, team, unit or organization. As distinct properties of the system, they can be deliberately designed and architected. To an adaptable learning system that can respond to unpredictable change, we need to deconstruct the system and understand its granular components.

The individual person is the essential, complex subsystem in the business architecture of an organization and the most significant connection with the rest of the world. At the root of our complex reality lies the fundamental nature of humans and human-to-human connection, trust-building and bonding. The pandemic has revealed that previously unknown and unmet needs for success come from close physical human collaboration, co-creation and interaction.

Satisfying core human needs

With this understanding (and to encourage individuals’ journeys to innovation), organizational leaders must tackle a range of design elements across their enterprise architectures — in a coordinated and interconnected fashion — to satisfy core human needs. This guiding principle for innovation and lasting change within a company is person-centricity, or the “person experience.” To enact this principle and create the conditions for continuous innovation, entrepreneurs should implement three key design practices:

1. Enable continuous learning

In a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (or VUCA) future, the ability to learn how to learn is the best means for enduring and thriving. To cross the threshold of knowledge, an organization must become what Peter Senge, senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and co-founder of the Academy for Systems Change, calls a “learning organization,” which continuously challenges its mindsets through triple-loop learning — or learning how to learn — in order to examine underlying beliefs and assumptions.

Related: Are You an Explorer in the VUCA World?

Are we pursuing what is right? Are we serving a higher purpose? Given the opportunity to learn, people increase in motivation. They contribute more to their organization’s shared purpose with new ideas and creative thinking. In a learning organization, leaders bring outside perspectives into early-stage co-creative product ideation and design. Instead of treating the end user or customer as an external stakeholder, limiting their participation to early-stage market research and late-stage user testing activities, include them in the design team. Involve them in the “messy” middle stages of ideating, designing and prototyping to increase the likelihood of meeting their unmet needs.

Leaders also probe for unmet needs and possible futures through feedforward methods or ways to give critiques focused on future development (such as appreciative inquiry or scenario planning). From there, they deploy adaptive processes through hypothesis-led cycles of experimentation, learning, feedback and adaptation, incorporating continual reflection in the form of before and after action reviews to understand how to learn better.

2. Reimagine old ways of working

For many reasons — including habits from working in physical proximity — work is more tightly coupled with countless dependencies among people, leading to workdays full of meetings, context switching and interruptions. Work also often lacks a shared and cohesive outcome or purpose. Rises in productivity we are currently seeing in remote work environments often feel like running faster on a treadmill but getting no closer to our destinations.

Related: 3 Trends That Will Define Remote Work in 2021

Work must be structured to enable team and individual “flow states” in which people are immersed in their work and creativity flourishes. Leaders need to strive for genuine collaboration where teams have generative, inclusive discussions in brave spaces (instead of simply sharing status and coordinating activity).

Entrepreneurs and startup leaders need to foster high cohesion among individuals on teams (and teams of teams) with a clear shared purpose surrounding the job to be done, as well as prioritize time and establish practices to build social bonds and trust between individuals and teams to boost the flow of ideas and knowledge. It's also worthwhile to rethink structuring, packaging and distributing work in modular ways, allowing flexibility in where, when, how, with whom and by whom jobs get done. Deconstruct work into cohesive bundles with close collaboration, rich communication and the collective intelligence of an inclusive team.

Within teams, bundles need to be deconstructed further to be well suited for an individual to perform with relatively little clarification or interruption. Loosely couple these cohesive work bundles to reduce dependencies and ambiguous feedback loops; this creates autonomy for individuals and teams to explore, experiment and make decisions.

3. Deploy more sensors in value chains and ecosystems

In a dynamic world, customer needs constantly emerge and evolve. Leaders must probe for unmet customer needs and create brave spaces for their discovery by their enterprises. Frequent feedback loops with insights curated from a variety of sensors (human, digital and combination) are essential components of intelligent adaptive systems.

Given the quintessential role of people and their relationships as the backbone of every value chain, it is important to continually probe the alignment between individuals, the teams in which they collaborate and the broader organization(s). Individual and collective purposes must align for successful outcomes. Sensors deployed to detect alignment among individuals, teams and organizations include deliberately articulating purpose, regularly validating alignment with the intended purpose, and recognizing individuals and teams demonstrating behaviors aligned with a shared purpose.

Alignment allows organizations to imagine and create products and services (authentic to their purpose) that resonate, generate stickiness and create lifelong relationships. Startup leaders need to embrace that the fundamental building block of our complex social and organizational systems is the individual — whether they’re an employee, customer, user, candidate, partner, supplier or another stakeholder in the ecosystem. Keep this in mind while designing products and services, moving beyond features and functions. Go deeper to explore the underlying human needs a product or service seeks to meet, whether they are functional, emotional, social or driven by deeper motivation.

Build feedback loops (through human touch points and digital data collection capabilities) into product architectures and customer lifecycle management practices to collect and curate insights about customers' experiences while using products and services. Do the same with process and people architectures inside the organization.

Business leaders now have an opportunity — almost an imperative — to rethink entire business and product architectures and the ecosystems they live in from the perspective of the individual as the elemental component of a complex system. Satisfaction of human needs and wants along with person-to-person connections in a social system are vital to its capabilities as a trustworthy, sustainable system. Now, with person experience principles at the core, change and innovation can be disseminated one person at a time.

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