May 27, 2020

Since the onset of COVID-19, people and organizations are changing the way they behave. Teachers are delivering lectures on their phones. Elected officials are voting on legislation from home. And pants have become an optional part of the dress code.

At the heart of these changes is the tension between people and technology. Organizations feel pressure to accelerate their digital transformation, but aren’t sure exactly what that means. Technology promises improved productivity and greater impact, but only when integrated effectively into our lives. Unfortunately, we can’t know which technologies will work ahead of time, or how best to make use of them. 

Many of the experiments in remote and digital work going on right now won’t stick. (Consider the backlash organizations are seeing because of  sudden, massive adoption of video conferencing platforms; “Zoom fatigue” is now the subject of extensive discussion and cited in cases of employee burnout.) That’s because humans do not respond well when forced to change behavior. As we trickle back to our offices, expect a return to familiar habits and routines. 

If the ad hoc approach doesn’t work, what might actually nudge us toward more productive behaviors in the long term? Some organizations we work with are successfully adopting internal accelerators. Internal accelerators, where teams of employees learn to apply startup techniques to solve problems and test new ideas, offer clues for leaders trying to support their workforce.

This model can easily be adapted virtually and used while sheltering in place. Plus it has benefits that will stick around long after we find a Covid vaccine: Accelerators can be used to train employees to respond faster to changing conditions, and empower leaders with greater insight. 

Consisting of small teams of employees, internal accelerators work on a specific project for 10-12 weeks. These are usually important projects at the concept stage. Teams have leadership support, and will need to engage a wide range of stakeholders to ensure success. During the accelerator, they receive weekly instruction and expert mentorship. Participants validate their ideas using a set of now-proven innovation tools and processes, such as the Lean Startup methodology and Human-Centered Design. 

Virtual accelerators are effective because they foster rapid learning. Employees respond surprisingly well to a supportive environment for trying new things. Done correctly, such an environment can transform the speed, quality, and impact of their work by:

  • Engaging a broad coalition of stakeholders, from users to suppliers. One accelerator team we worked with recently said it would normally take “a year or two” to reach the same number of people that took under 8 weeks.
  • Holding participants accountable in a weekly rhythm. We aim for teams to conduct 10 interviews with stakeholders per week. This ensures a comprehensive assessment of each project’s risks, plus the potential for real impact if they succeed.
  • Challenging their leadership to actively guide each team. It’s not enough for a leader to give a motivational speech on Day 1. We have them offering advice and support throughout the process.
  • Collaborating freely, from peer mentoring to opening up networks. One accelerator team mentioned the value of critiques by other teams early on to improve their final proposal.
  • Combining new tools with existing processes and techniques. Introduce and rehearse one new concept per week, and be ready to discard it if the teams don’t find it valuable. 

Workforce development is an unexpected byproduct of the accelerator model. Employees are willing to experiment, provided they don’t have to “return to the beginning.” Someone who has spent decades cultivating expertise does not want to feel like they’re starting over. They want to be better at their work by building off what they know. And that requires an environment where it’s safe to experiment.

Of course, internal accelerators aren’t for everyone. Specific conditions are required to make them successful. They require support at the executive level, access to world-class mentors, a collective willingness to tap professional networks, and a lot of hard work. But if you’re a leader guiding your organization through this difficult time toward the future of work, consider running an internal accelerator.