Abim Kolawole

Vice President, Digital Innovation

Innovation in Times of Uncertainty

Topics: Home.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Today’s futurists will always be tomorrow’s leaders, both in times of peace and pandemic. In such an unprecedented time, it’s very hard to focus their gaze out onto the horizon. To varying degrees, we are all trying to endure a global public health crisis. Adjusting to today’s new worries and uncertainties takes a toll. Here’s the critical point: today may also be an opportunity for some business leaders to go on the offensive. While others are reacting to the current situation, now may be a time for well-positioned organizations to explore bold new proposals, mitigate current challenges and discover new competitive advantages.

Two weeks ago, our CEO John Schlifske reinforced Northwestern Mutual’s exceptional financial strength and our need to continue delivering for our clients and advisors. He further indicated that, though this is a challenging time, it’s time for us to go on the offensive. He challenged all of us to keep our foot on the gas pedal when it comes to innovation, strength, service, value and more. More than four million clients are counting on us to be there for them. To the extent we can, we must keep moving forward, continuously improving their customer experience while delivering exceptional product values. As an organization, we’re committing to winning tomorrow – and that means working harder and smarter today.

As business leaders, it’s a time for us to act responsibly and courageously, modify our mindsets and keep our focus on the future, too, if we can. Here is the advice that I’m giving to my teams – and to anyone else who inquires.

Prioritize your team’s present-day challenges

Teams move forward together. The first objective for any leader is to address your employees’ immediate needs – any issues arising with connectivity, technology, strategic clarity, child care, health care, etc. Such needs are to be proactively solved with a kind, empathetic heart and a warrior’s mindset. Lead by example – if your team sees your enduring support for them, they will share the same with you.

Push for breakthroughs

Uncertainty sometimes leads to inertia, but it can also create the urgency for innovation. Those who can help, should. As an example, the current pandemic has resulted in shortages of medical equipment around the world. This is leading to some innovation – in particular, the development of 3D-printable respirators that could enable patients to breathe, potentially saving more lives.

At Northwestern Mutual, today’s new normal has challenged us to reevaluate and act to adapt long-standing processes related to customer service, underwriting, everyday teaming, virtual workspaces, and so much more – all to deliver maximum results and convenience to our clients.

Inspire your team to look long-term

It’s easy for business leaders to ignore the months and years to come when you must spend significant time triaging today. Resist this, if you can. Day-to-day operations are critical, but they are just one element of your organization. Try to keep your team’s future-focused items on the agenda. Schedule brainstorming sessions and continue talking through ideas to drive progress on current problems while anticipating emerging opportunities.

For example, on my team, we’ve activated an Innovation Response Team that meets a few times a week. They discuss developing challenges in our business areas and opportunities to solve such problems in the very near term – but they also explore opportunities that create future flexibility and business optionality. They’re continuing to collaborate and will soon present their findings and recommendations.

Promote futurist teams

Role clarity has never been more important. Are any of your teams directly accountable for long-term innovation? If not, consider creating dedicated teams that focus significantly on the future. The world will eventually return to a new normal, and it’s important for teams with capacity to start thinking about how to be as relevant as possible.

At Northwestern Mutual, we have teams that partner with intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs to co-create, launch and scale new ventures that could potentially extend our core business into new markets with new customers. Their work continues today, because tomorrow is coming.

Today’s future-focused teams will win the future. It’s essential for business leaders to help their teams adapt to today’s shifting sands, provide the support they need, and if possible, inspire them to keep imagining solutions to challenges. What are you doing to support and empower your teams to keep their eyes up and continue moving forward?

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