Companies that really suffered have a long road back to innovating. Rebuilding trust, culture realignment and leadership are the keys.

If your company suffered significantly in the downturn, and especially if you suffered layoffs or other demoralizing effects, it is likely that your “innovation comeback” will be a delicate road.

Stress — whether individual or organizational — often causes behavioral changes that are counter-productive in many ways, including for the pursuit of new ideas or innovation. Perhaps you have experienced a highly stressful time in your past. Think: was your behavior “normal?” Did you have the usual measure of patience, judgment, critical or creative thinking? Likely not.

Organizations are organisms, much like human beings — just much bigger.  And, they respond to stress much like other organisms, with “fight or flight” reactions, survival tactics and sometimes, bad behavior.

In dire times, it’s natural for management to hunker down and exert even more control than usual. Every variable is scrutinized and safety is of utmost value. It is not a time for unnecessary risk-taking or entertainment of ideas that don’t have the highest possibility of success. So, while safety is first, breakthrough ideas are low priority.

If this has been your situation, consider that the Innovation Comeback Trail will take time, trust re-building, cultural realignment, exceptional leadership and direction.

So, how does it start? It’s starts with trust. Do employees trust management now that they’ve seen many of their colleagues lose their jobs? Are they still waiting for the other shoe to drop? If there is no other shoe, what is the evidence of that?  If there was ever a situation when “actions speak louder than words,” what are those actions that will renew confidence in management?

Conversely, does management trust their workforce to do what’s necessary to bring the business back to prosperity? How to let out more slack without losing total control? How to be sure that everyone appreciates how tenuous the situation still is? How to know that employees truly care about our collective success?

Trust is a big component of cultural realignment, but not all of it. Most companies say their values include Integrity, Innovation and People. Stress often causes us to be out-of-integrity in some ways. As I noted before, innovation is often quashed. And it’s hard to be convincing about that value during downsizing. Denial is not a strategy on the comeback trail. Honesty, acknowledgment and empathy between management and workforce are the first steps toward the re-establishment of values.

Direction and leadership are inextricably linked. People naturally respond to immediate directives and that which is measured, however different than the “big picture” or job description or stated goals. However, it is also suspect to suddenly change direction — even if that direction was the previous status quo. It takes earnest dialogue, slow movement with reinforcing steps and walking the talk to shift the direction back to aggressive pursuit of the bright picture of the future.

Leaders sometimes forget that they have spent hours, days or weeks thinking about new direction but their charges are just learning about it. And like anything new, it takes time, consistent messaging and consistent actions/behavior to get buy-in.

Turn that unwieldy bus and get it back on the path to a bright future!