Yes, Remote Innovation Works. These 6 Steps Will Help It Thrive.

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What if healthcare providers could use virtual reality sessions instead of potentially dangerous medications in their treatment of palliative-care patients?

Intrigued by this question and others like it, Dr. Marcie Stoshak-Chavez — Healthcare Practice lead at my company, Centric Consulting — raised them with some passionate explorers on our team. Soon, our Virtual Reality for Healthcare (VR for HC) incubator was formed.

After much trial and error within the technology innovation funnel and a few false starts, we joined forces with a healthcare partner, merging our hardware and software capabilities with their healthcare delivery expertise to create patient sessions where we could capture feedback on the experience while helping patients.

Although much about this innovation journey may sound familiar — from the trial and error and false starts to multiple, subsequent product redesigns — one core element most likely does not: It has taken place nearly entirely remotely.

Since its inception 20 years ago, Centric has had a thriving office-optional workforce, which has grown from just a handful of people to more than 1,000 employees in 13 cities in the US and India.

Dr. Stoshak-Chavez is based in Chicago. The passionate explorers and incubator participants she teamed up with are in Cleveland, Miami, Tucson, Columbus, and Boston. Our healthcare partners along the way were California- and Cleveland-based.

At a time when everyone is struggling to transition to remote work while maintaining innovation, we’ve won an award doing just that. This year, we were included in Fast Company’s list of “100 Best Workplaces for Innovators.”

As a growing number of organizations, including Twitter, Google, Zillow, and Nationwide Insurance, transition to remote work for the long haul, one of the biggest fears people express is that innovation will suffer. They often reference Apple’s and Pixar’s office spaces designed to optimize innovation by encouraging those serendipitous run-ins with coworkers that lead to idea-sharing and breakthroughs.

The stakes are high. Innovation is critical for survival in today’s environment. Yet there’s no turning back from the changes the pandemic has brought. Luckily, we know innovation is entirely possible in the new, virtual work world. Here is our blueprint for keeping the creative wheels turning and amping up innovation when employees aren’t always working side by side:

Virtually Engineer Serendipitous Encounters

The right collaboration tools can create the same sort of opportune encounters that Apple and Pixar champion, even under remote circumstances. Communication tools like Microsoft Teams and Slack, for example, provide an online space for people to talk about new ideas and progress on innovative projects. They can also generate a written, searchable history of everything being discussed.

While working on the VR for HC project, we managed all of our interactions through a Microsoft Teams space, including meetings, brainstorming chats, project management, and the collection of all of our team’s outputs and materials.

Create a Repository of Problems You’d Like to Solve

Nothing triggers innovation like having a problem you’re itching to solve. That’s where a remote repository of problems comes in handy. Some should be client-specific, while others can remain broader and applicable to an entire industry. The more people that contribute to the repository, the better. Innovation requires a lot of ideas coming in from a variety of people.

Although you do want as many ideas as possible, you also want to provide some guidelines to make sure those ideas align in some way to larger company goals or real client or industry challenges. A repository can be a great tool for vetting which new ideas fit the bill.

A repository also connects a firm’s natural innovators with people who may not have an idea to offer but are strong problem-solvers and creative thinkers. Successful innovation efforts engage both types of people.

Hold Innovation-Focused Sessions

Whether in-person or remote, innovation-focused sessions that gather and test the latest thinking, ideas, and problems are key. Employees usually leave these sessions energized, excited to be part of something new, and having made new connections.

One recent example of such sessions at Centric would be Expedition: Data, an in-person event to encourage and develop machine learning and data science talent. Early this spring, Centric employees worked with Microsoft and RevLocal, a national digital marketing company, to come up with innovative ways to use Microsoft’s Azure suite and other tools to improve RevLocal’s employee and customer retention. The winning team got bragging rights and $100 Amazon gift cards.

Create a Virtual Innovation Lab

Too many organizations focus only on getting ideas, neglecting what comes next. If one of your employees has a concept they want to explore, do they know how to go about developing it?

Centric created its Virtual Innovation Lab to help guide innovators as they explore their ideas to see if they have legs. The lab acts as a collaboration portal and provides tools and resources for remote teams to work through the innovation life cycle, helping them overcome major hurdles as they mature their concepts and get them to the minimum viable product stage.

Our virtual lab essentially provides a blueprint for rapid prototyping using agile development and human experience design principles, among other innovation frameworks. The goal is to help innovators quickly assess proof of concept and proof of value. This is important. If something works, that’s great, but is it feasible from an operational standpoint? Does it actually provide value to the end users or customers? Does it solve a real problem? If the answer to any of these questions is no, your innovator needs to either pivot or kill the project.

Be Intentional About How You Put Teams Together

Our virtual innovation process relies on agile development, which in its purest form requires teams to be together every day. So how do we get around that as a remote company? We’re very intentional about how we put teams together.

While self-forming teams can work and come together easily when you’re in an office setting, team formation needs to be more deliberate in a virtual environment. Get to know your internal network and who has what skills, capabilities, and passions. Use that knowledge to build teams that will mesh well and play off one another’s strengths. The goal is to virtually replicate the relationships and collaborative spirit that happen effortlessly in an office.

Prioritize Transparency

As with any effort in your organization, communication plays a critical role. In a virtual environment, it’s easy to forget to share information or see what your teammates are doing. That’s why we’ve made transparency a key focus for our virtual innovation lab.

Transparency is not only vital for networking and team-building, but also important in defining the measurements that matter. Innovation isn’t easy, and intentionally prioritizing transparency forces learning and greater understanding. Perfection and polish are not required (at least not until the idea is commercialized). Drive the difficult conversations now, and always try to operate in the light.

Embrace Failure

Finally, remember: Only through trial and error and failure does innovation ultimately succeed. But most companies are failure-phobic, and in the interest of profits, many penalize employees and divisions for losing money.

To innovate, you have to embrace failure and help your teams do the same. Give them the tools and the space to test new ideas or processes. Celebrate their efforts regardless of the outcomes. Organize sessions — remote or in-person — where people share stories about their failures. We have, and it has served us well.

Larry English, author of Office Optional: How to Build a Connected Culture With Virtual Teams, is president and cofounder of Centric Consulting.

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Larry English, author of "Office Optional: How to Build a Connected Culture With Virtual Teams," is president and cofounder of Centric Consulting, a management consulting firm that guides organizations in the search for answers to complex digital, business, and technology problems. Before Centric Consulting, Larry worked for a large international consulting firm out of college until he got burned out at 25. He and his newlywed wife backpacked around the world as he tried to find his path in life — and he did. Shortly after returning home, he and his like-minded pals founded Centric with a focus on changing how consulting was done by building a remote company with a mission to create a culture of employee and client happiness. Today, Centric is a 1,000+ person company with offices in 12 US cities and India. Larry is father to four boys and husband to an adventurous wife. They reside in Columbus, Ohio. Larry is donating a portion of the royalties he receives from "Office Optional" to charity.