It is time to build a new innovation for the virtual era

Innovation is often the product of serendipity–a kind of magic that happens when the right people are working together in the right place, and suddenly the spark of an idea lights up the room.

Put Larry Page and Sergey Brin in the same graduate program at Stanford in 1995, for example, and they’ll cook up Google by 1996. Through creative conversations in the lab and at a nearby pub, two Cambridge scientists came up with a new approach to DNA sequencing. And it was through decades of serendipitous discussion and co-location that their company, Illumina, was able to bring the price of their technology down from $300,000 per genome to $1,000. An unexpected global learner response to a Stanford massive open online course experiment led Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng to launch Coursera, the company I now run, in 2012.

Throughout the Information Age, serendipity has been the driving force behind many innovations. After all, much of Silicon Valley exists in its current form because clustering people together makes breakthroughs more likely. It’s no surprise that a recent analysis by Boston Consulting Group found that social connectivity can more than double productivity.

So what happens when a global pandemic fundamentally changes the way we work with one another? What happens when our workforces are dispersed and distributed? Put another way, can CEOs drive breakthrough innovation without office space and the serendipitous interaction it encourages? I believe we can, and we must. And that work starts by recognizing that innovation–even breakthrough innovation–is often not the product of serendipity alone, but rather the combination of serendipity and process.

With remote work, CEOs need to build a process of intentional, purposeful innovation. As championed in design thinking, we need to treat innovation as a discipline rather than alchemy. And we need to do it, I believe, with a two-track approach: one for seeking 10% innovations, the other for seeking 10x breakthroughs. Both are essential to any company’s long-term growth, but in my experience, they don’t often arise out of the same strategic process.

We must invent and adopt new tools and methods–for generative brainstorming, evaluation and decision-making, visual thinking and exploration, flowcharting, and systems diagramming–that distributed teams can use that don’t merely mimic the effect of teams working together more casually in an office but that are perhaps even more effective at eliciting brilliance and “aha” moments. We haven’t figured it all out yet, but there are indications that even revolutionary innovation might be achievable by distributed teams if they use effective tools and intentional processes.

In the day and age of rapid iteration and fail fast, we need to embrace the practice of innovating with customers. Companies need a carefully designed process for developing customer insights that is based on a system of observation and user empathy. But to do this successfully, you need a deep connection with your customers or partners, one that integrates their problems and challenges into your design thinking. This is especially important with distributed teams, where the natural observation that might occur in a normal work environment is gone.

Let me give you an example from our own experience at Coursera. Once the pandemic disrupted on-campus learning earlier this year, instructors worldwide were forced to teach online. However, many universities globally lack an online catalog that can serve their students’ needs across disciplines. In fact, fewer than 50 percent of the faculty members in the United States have taught an online course.

Coming up with a solution required a disciplined process, rooted in careful observation of how an instructor’s life has changed post-COVID, wherein they are jumping from one Zoom session to another, giving live lectures because they don’t have a video library of content. Much of Coursera’s observation work, including interviews with instructors, was done remotely by different teams.

The result: Live2Coursera Zapp (short for “Zoom app”), which allows instructors to easily record, share, and upload Zoom lectures on Coursera. Faculty can produce online content rapidly by importing their Zoom sessions directly and integrating them into courses that students can view before the class. This allows them to focus on real engagement with students through discussions and group activities. The initial reaction suggests that it will go a long way in easing a key pain point for instructors, likely one of the reasons Zoom announced it at its Zoomtopia user conference. During the pandemic, we introduced several new product innovations for universities, but Live2Coursera Zapp was the one that directly came out of the process of intentional innovation.

Innovation is never easy. But it is always essential. Ultimately there will be winners and losers in the coming years, and many of those who falter will do so under the impossible weight of circumstances beyond their control. But for chief executives whose companies are positioned to grow and to thrive, this moment represents an opportunity to redefine innovation itself–and the process by which we spark it.

Jeff Maggioncalda is CEO of Coursera, one of the world’s largest online learning platforms.

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