Innovation in Times of Crisis

Nabeel Sadique Ali

Jun 24, 8 min read

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When we look back on the current health crisis, there’s no doubt that we’ll learn that it resulted in a number of innovations

In World War 2, many of us are familiar with stories about how American GIs kept trucks and jeeps running without spare parts. Having worked on jalopies in their garages, the young soldiers were able to make repairs with whatever materials they had on hand. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, innovators are jumping in to help. Around the world, beer makers and distilleries have shifted production to hand sanitizers. In Italy, a start-up engineering company began quickly using 3D printers to create the valves used in ventilators. Those just-in-time valves are saving lives. In a recent survey of more than 200 organizations across industries, more than 90 percent of executives said they expect the fallout from COVID-19 to fundamentally change the way they do business over the next five years, with almost as many asserting that the crisis will have a lasting impact on their customers’ needs.

When we look back on the current health crisis, there’s no doubt that we’ll learn that it resulted in a number of innovations: new drugs and medical devices, improved healthcare processes, manufacturing and supply chain breakthroughs, novel collaboration techniques.

Why invest in innovation during times of crisis?

  • Businesses need to increase their opportunity discovery bandwidth since the world is changing rapidly and identifying high-potential innovation opportunities early on becomes a survival skill. In order to improve the 'state of mind' of your business, innovation can strengthen the connection between employees and teams, it can boost morale, it can bring about a shared attitude among employees. Crisis breeds innovation because it demands a sharper, shared clarity of purpose. That is true for societies as well as individuals. Amid all the chaos, a crisis can provide what corporate anthropologists Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel Rasmussen call The Moment of Clarity, when the point of what you are doing becomes clear: saving lives, caring for one another, putting food on the table. A crisis demands urgency because it can get out of hand, growing exponentially and outpacing normal responses, as the UK found to its cost by locking down later than many other countries. Crisis compresses timescales and forces people to work at speed, eliminating the steps in processes which add very little to outcomes. When time is short, we have to focus on what is really critical and not bother with the rest. That is how vaccines were developed and approved in record time. Elements in the process that are usually sequential, were carried out in parallel, compressing the time from initial prototype to approval from years to a few months.
  • In a crisis, one which engulfs the entire country, innovators have to find solutions that work at scale from the outset. They do not have the luxury of an extended period of prototyping to refine their solutions. Ehsaas had to find a solution that worked for millions of families within days. Working fast to achieve scale shortcuts the innovation process, eliminating often lengthy processes of ideation, research and prototyping but also processes like ethics reviews. Instead, the emphasis has to be on what works fast, everywhere. That favours solutions which are simple and robust.
  • The need for urgency, focus and scale favours solutions which repurpose existing technologies rather than inventing things from scratch. That may be true of innovation in all settings, but crisis accentuates the advantages of repurposing and recombining what already works.
  • Crisis creates the conditions for the kind of open-minded collaboration which is virtually impossible in normal times, especially in highly departmentalised public systems. The Ehsaas micro-payments system was created by bringing together different government departments; local, provincial and national Government; mobile phone companies and banks; retailers and community organisations. Ehsaas created a coalition committed to achieving a shared goal in record time.
  • The inherent uncertainty created by an unfolding crisis means it's hard at the outset to say what will work. That means failure is almost inevitable and therefore more tolerable. In a crisis not everything will work first time around. As Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, puts it: you have to make 100 per cent decisions with only 50 per cent of the information. There is no option but to accept, embrace even, the radical uncertainty of the situation, and the creative, adaptive solutions that requires.

How to empower innovation in crisis situations?

  1. Make it more ‘available’. Provide all the innovation resources via digital means; make your innovation channel always-on.
  2. Make it more ‘flexible’. Remove bureaucracies; Make your innovation process simpler, faster, and asynchronous.
  3. Ensure it is ‘purposeful’. Connect innovation with the purpose of your organization; innovate with a purpose.
  4. Increase its ‘bandwidth’. Enable the company to spot and evaluate more innovation opportunities, faster.

Now, let’s check the methods to implement these.

Problem solving at the heart

It is clear that these innovations will have two characteristics in common: first, they will solve problems, which says much about the heart of innovation. And then they will also reflect the human desire to help, connect with others, and be a part of the solution. But there is much more to the generative nature of a crisis that leads to innovation than simply an opportunity to solve problems. Crises present us with unique conditions that allow innovators to think and move more freely to create rapid, impactful change. For learning leaders, these conditions provide us with the opportunity to do our best to help, and for our teams to do their most innovative work in the service of our organizations.

Uniting Around a Purpose

One of the key leadership challenges in day-to-day organizational life is inspiring engagement and generating energy toward the goals of the organization. During a crisis, there can be a massive spike in energy present in the workforce. Leaders who can appropriately focus the energy of its workforce toward a clear purpose in resolving the crisis will typically find more than just a deep wellspring of energy and discretionary effort – they will often experience a wave of new ideas, as individuals feel compelled to share insights they normally would keep to themselves.

Leaders often leverage consultants to get a fresh, outside perspective on their organizations to find opportunities to innovate. A crisis can have much the same effect, putting the spotlight on vulnerabilities, problem areas great and small, that we’ve been ignoring or are just plain unaware of. When a crisis hits, we are forced to confront the truth about how our systems work (or don’t). The places where things could be done better or more efficiently become glaringly obvious. All of a sudden, opportunities for innovation are staring us in the face.

Unfreezing the Organization

As organizations grow, they harden their structures to create predictability, efficiency, and stability. Crises change all that. For example, the COVID-19 crisis has upended the way that grocery chains manage inventory, a process that has been refined over many years to maximize profitability by carrying smaller inventories and turning that inventory more quickly. With the huge spike in demand for products, purchasing managers have bypassed these finely tuned processes in favor of shortcuts that source larger quantities of products much more quickly.

Creating a Bias Toward Action

On that last point, crisis demands movement and change – the pace of ideation, decision making, and implementation all increase dramatically. An organization that normally gets trapped in “the intense study of the obvious” now must force itself to quickly create experiments, see what happens, and experiment some more. This process of experimentation allows the freedom to test different thinking, to fail fast, to learn, and to move forward – in short, to innovate.

Want to learn more? Get in touch with the team at SANCREATIVES and let’s see how we can help.

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