When the pandemic began, leaders had to guide their organizations through uncertainty. Employees went from sharing open office floorplans to working from home. Leaders that adopted a flexible, experimental mindset toward remote work stood the best chance of not only surviving the pandemic but also uncovering new opportunities for improved employee productivity and satisfaction.

As organizations settle into their new normal, we can take a look back at what we learned – and what we unlearned. This is a great time to visit some advice from innovation expert Barry O’Reilly, author of Unlearn: Let Go of Past Success to Achieve Extraordinary Results.

We’ve broken down his advice into four tips for success.

1. Be willing and able to adapt when faced with uncertainty

O’Reilly describes his approach to unlearning: “Highly effective leaders are constantly searching for inspiration and for new ideas,” he said. “But before any real breakthroughs can happen, we need to step away from the old models, mindsets, and behaviors that are limiting our potential and current performance. We must unlearn what brought us success in the past to find continued success in the future.”

During the pandemic, successful IT leaders realized that the radical shift to remote work was an opportunity to institute an intentional, collaborative, and agile culture. “Digital transformation is a talent transformation, as much as the technology one, and people need to learn new skills,” said O’Reilly. 

Later, leaders found that proximity and location don’t ensure productivity, which meant rethinking office space and on-premise IT infrastructure. Companies in the early stages of their digital transformation began looking at the benefits of cloud and hybrid work environments for remote workers as an alternative to working at the office.

The more you practice learning and adapting your behavior, the easier it becomes. We think big about what we need to unlearn, but we start small.

Barry O’Reilly

2. Realize that even small changes can drive innovation

As customers interact with companies virtually, innovative leaders saw a world of possibilities as they challenged their beliefs about employee and customer engagement. They needed to find ways to introduce change without overwhelming their employees.

Starting small is one way for leaders to unlearn old behaviors and take some risks. This could mean re-evaluating the number of recurring meetings, which can create more time for brainstorming and ideation. Or it could mean unlocking information and making it visible across the organization, inviting more input and spurring new ideas.

The key to getting the most out of small changes is ensuring psychological safety for employees. Providing a safe environment in which to fail is especially important during transition periods. It may take some people longer to unlearn old behavior than others, so patience and encouragement go a long way. 

O’Reilly explained the importance of providing people with a safe space to innovate. “You gotta get comfortable with being uncomfortable and outside your comfort zone to grow,” he said. “People need to feel that they can make small mistakes with their team members and not feel like their reputation and their identity is tarnished.” The last thing leaders want is to stifle creativity and engagement by making people afraid to try new things or share their ideas.

3. Model change and lead the way by becoming an early adopter

Can OKRs accelerate your scaled agile transformation?

Some leaders are early adopters of new products as they are early adopters of new practices, which can encourage their colleagues to adopt this behavior as well. But first, they need to have a shared vision across the organization and open communication. One way to do this is to adopt an outcome management model, such as objectives and key results (OKRs), so that leaders can create alignment and engagement around measurable goals.

With OKRs, teams within the organization take high-level objectives and refine them to set OKRs for their own departments. Sales, marketing, IT, engineering, finance, and other teams all create their own OKRs that align with the company’s overall mission, vision, and goals. These teams are more engaged and productive when they have a clear understanding of what they’re trying to achieve and where it fits in the big picture.

4. Unlearn old methods and unleash potential breakout innovations

An adaptable culture thrives on data and analysis. During the pandemic, market and customer needs changed overnight. Companies that only knew how to plan annually struggled to pivot, with already-funded projects in the pipeline suddenly becoming irrelevant. Unlearning the old ways of planning not only makes for a more durable company, but can lead to market-changing innovation.

For instance, we’ve seen our customers take on new approaches to budgeting. Those that plan with shorter time horizons, as prescribed in lean portfolio management (LPM), are able to adapt using new data and allocating investments where they’ll have the biggest payoff.

Jira Align provides visibility for OKRs and supports organizational change 

The three-letter word that unlocks organizational change

Employees need guidance when learning new metrics. O’Reilly tells us, “We’re not trained to measure outcomes, but the trick to do it is to get people to tell stories. An outcome is really a change in behavior that leads to a business impact.” 

Outcome management works best when you can visualize goals, strategies, tactics, and progress across the organization. For companies with multiple offices and remote workers around the world, you need to make OKRs accessible 24/7.

Atlassian’s Jira Align allows companies to set strategic objectives, prioritize initiatives, and align work so that strategy and execution are connected, ensuring everyone is working together towards the same outcomes.

To learn more about innovation and managing outcomes, tune in to our webinar, Barry O’Reilly: Transform Your Organization Around Outcomes.

Barry O’Reilly’s tips on unlearning old routines to drive innovation