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Innovating how we innovate in a pandemic world

Future of Work|Talent
COVID 19 Coronavirus

By Karen O’Leonard and Paige Seaborn | May 8, 2020

Developing market-leading solutions to both new and existing problems requires a continued focus on evolving the innovation experience.

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About Willis Towers Watson’s Horizons initiative

The Horizons innovation challenge is designed to encourage colleague collaboration on new products and solutions that, first and foremost, address the needs of our clients. It’s also an opportunity for colleagues to contribute to growth and new corporate revenue generation. The initiative supports our goal of continually learning, testing, optimizing and sharing insights in order better help clients meet challenges in an ever-changing world – throughout this period of crisis and beyond.

Our 2020 all-colleague innovation challenge, Horizons, culminated in early May, which meant that crunch time for the finalists coincided with nationwide social distancing measures, office closures and shelter-in-place orders – all at a time when team collaboration would normally be at its peak. What did colleagues do? They turned to technology to work together to meet the deadline. Essentially, they had to innovate to meet the innovation challenge. We think the lessons learned from this challenge have broader implications for how organizations will collaborate today and even serve clients and customers in a post-pandemic environment.

Planning for virtual innovation

With collaboration at the heart of our Horizons innovation challenge, and so often at the heart of spontaneous innovation, how would similar innovation initiatives survive? Enter the miracle of virtual collaboration. From idea coaching to brainstorming, and even to coordinating an entirely virtual pitch day with 13 participants and seven judges, learning to effectively use remote collaboration tools is essential.

Here are a few important considerations when planning for virtual innovation:

  • Designate a point person to liaise with IT on learning the technology. An already tech-savvy colleague can translate and communicate or demo more complex features to the rest of the team to avoid frustration and repetitive questions.
  • Conduct dry runs or practice sessions to help important virtual meetings go off without a hitch. You can minimize the potential for unforeseen circumstances and be prepared with solutions to issues you already anticipated.
  • Identify champions dedicated to innovation to facilitate virtual brainstorming. Committed colleagues are more likely to make time to innovate and less likely to give up if the technology acts up. Plus, making one or two colleagues responsible for tools like virtual sticky notes or whiteboards helps avoid having too many cooks in the virtual kitchen.

Adapting to a virtual environment

There’s no question that we were able to continue problem solving, collaborating and creating some sense of human connection through our ability to engage virtually for the Horizons challenge. These are considerable wins in the fight for a degree of normalcy. What this experience has more recently highlighted are potential side effects of virtual interaction that are not clearly positive or negative.

For example, without natural opportunities for small talk that usually occur at the start or end of an in-person meeting, how many instances of spontaneous innovation will be lost? Will this time now transition to another form of productivity?

The pros and cons of virtual pitches

When it comes to our Horizon innovation challenge and how finalists may be judged differently than they were in the past, the impact of less casual interaction with judges has yet to be determined. Presenters may have a harder time getting judges to connect emotionally with their idea in a virtual environment. Judges may be more hesitant to emotionally invest in ideas if there’s no time to connect casually and build rapport with the finalists.

When selecting which ideas to pursue, part of the decision is based on the passion of the colleagues and their belief in their idea. It’s harder to ascertain that during a virtual event.”

Karen O’Leonard
Head of Willis Towers Watson innovation and Horizons 2020 judge

There’s also an argument to be made that the lower level of emotion in the (virtual) room will enable more objective decision making. Karen O’Leonard, head of Willis Towers Watson innovation and Horizons 2020 judge, pointed out, “When selecting which ideas to pursue, part of the decision is based on the passion of the colleagues and their belief in their idea. If selected, we give them four months to prototype and test their idea, and we want colleagues who are going to be dedicated to pursuing their concept. It’s harder to ascertain that during a virtual event.”

This dynamic may also hold true post-pandemic if more companies turn to virtual client pitches as organizations try to reduce travel and maintain some level of social distancing. It’s up to the innovators to listen, observe, ideate and test, in order to find out.

Thinking post-pandemic

Clearly, our lives and the way business is conducted will be different in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Exactly how remains unclear. But you can expect that innovation will help us all meet the challenges of a post-pandemic era.


Head of Innovation

Senior Associate – Corporate Innovation

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