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What does Brexit have to do with innovation?

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Victoria Harrison-Mirauer, an expert in innovation, discusses how uncertainty with Brexit can be an opportunity for HR innovation.

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I don’t know about you, but Brexit is making my head hurt. Whichever side of the remain, leave fence you are on, (or indeed if you find yourself sitting on the fence), the uncertainty and delay, the ‘if’s, ‘maybes’, back-stops and red lines seem to have left many of us reeling. The people, processes and institutions we have come to rely on seem suddenly to lack direction, determination and decisiveness. What does it all mean? What should we do about it? Should we just sit tight and wait and see…

As an innovation leader working with executives globally, I hear a lot about the challenges of uncertainty around Brexit. I have reflected on what we should be saying and doing about that and asking myself how I should be advising my clients. What is a good Brexit strategy? What I realised is that Brexit is akin to innovation in many ways, and the challenges of Brexit highlight many of the challenges of familiar to those who work in innovation. I also realised innovators are well placed to meet the challenges of Brexit with characteristic optimism and opportunism.  In fact, Brexit is the ultimate ‘innovation brief’.

Throughout my career in innovation, the best problems to have a go at have been the hardest ones; the ones where applying the usual processes and approaches hasn’t worked. This is because when things get really tough and when the usual routes to new solutions have been exhausted,  then people’s appetite to look outside the box, and to consider different options increases. When the proverbial doo-doo hits the fan, it’s time for innovation to shine.

Innovation is about dealing with unknowns, falling in love with intractable problems, bringing diverse thinking to create new solutions. Innovation is fundamentally optimistic too, you can’t innovate if you don’t believe there is an answer, or a range of answers out there somewhere. Innovation is about being creative with what you have, competitive by out-smarting. Innovation is a journey not a ‘thing’, it involves hypotheses, testing, trying, prototyping, learning, iterating. Innovation is opportunistic, entrepreneurial, different. I think about Brexit and I like the sound of these words.

These words make my head hurt less, they make my heart race a little actually, and I realise that Brexit is a rally cry for innovation, for the optimists, and the opportunists. Now is the time to support the innovators in our organisations who are brave enough to approach this uncertainty with energy, optimism and the ‘will’ to create new solutions and options. We want our people to be resilient, to be able to lead through ambiguity, to demonstrate and to role model ‘growth mindsets’; the practice of innovation is the perfect proving ground for these essential leadership capabilities.

So as I sit here thinking about Brexit with my innovator’s hat on, I think about the opportunities and the promise. I think about the industries, universities, professional services and culture the UK has invented and reinvented and my head hurts a little less.  I believe in innovation as the engine of our future economy, I would be in the wrong job if I didn’t, but it’s not just my bias. In a recent Innovate UK blog, James Haydari said ‘ we need a constant stream of new ideas that seek to resolve these emerging challenges’. I also believe that the innovator’s mindset and behaviours are supremely important as a guide in uncertain times.

It is clear that ‘solutions’ to the Brexit debate could still be some way off, but what strikes me is that innovative thinking is desperately needed in these discussions, now more than ever. When all the common routes, strategies and ideas have been exhausted, involving people who can apply the principles of innovation to the unique challenges that Brexit presents will be vital in helping to bring it to a conclusion, whatever that may be. Could it be time for the politicians to call in the innovation experts?

About the author

Victoria Harrison-Mirauer MA Cantab, MA, MSc

Victoria Harrison-Mirauer

 Victoria is a Cambridge graduate, expert innovator with 19 years experience across innovation, marketing, digital and brand strategy. She is currently the Discipline Lead for Innovation at Ashridge Hult International Business School and runs a private innovation practice, The Ideas Machine. Victoria has led hundreds of innovation projects for some of the world’s best-known businesses and brands, having founded the What If Innovation Customer Experience team.

Victoria holds an MSc in Organisational Psychology and commences her PHD in 2019.


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