Innovating in a Crisis

The innovation I see right now truly is awe-inspiring.  For example, distilleries making hand sanitizer, software companies reconfiguring software to help hospitals track and manage COVID-19 cases,massive in-person conferences going virtual, and restaurants turning into community kitchens to serve the needy. For all of the anxiety caused by the current health crisis, there is also a lot of creativity and innovation for doing good and keeping businesses afloat.
It’s interesting how a crisis – characterized by uncertainty and constraints – sparks so much innovation.  When times are good, we often forget the proverb, “necessity is the mother of invention”. We mistakenly believe that more resources (time, money, talent) will help us innovate. But my current newsfeed, my client work, and the research all show that innovation can flourish in times like these.

For example, a meta-analysis published at the end of 2019 found that constraints help, rather than hinder, innovation. Oguz Acar, Murat Tarakci, and Daan van Knippenberg reviewed 145 empirical studies on the effects of constraints on creativity and innovation and found that individuals, teams, and organizations alike benefit from a healthy dose of constraints. In other words, the limits of time, money, and available materials that many of us are dealing with in the wake of COVID-19 should help us be more innovative. 

As I’ve watched clients completely re-work their product roadmaps during the last three weeks, here are a few things I’ve observed about how to innovate well in a crisis:

1.     Adjust Our Mindset
Innovating in a crisis requires shifting our mindset so we are not held back by fear. It is natural to have fear when there is massive uncertainty, revenue declines, and volatility. But fear is where innovation dies.

The good news is that there are specific behaviors that help us face, and move through, our fears.  What I’ve observed, and personally experienced, is that we are better able to overcome our natural fears about the unknown when we do these four things:
  1. Listen, especially to our intuition – the best innovators tap into and follow their inner wisdom
  2. Ask for help - give up the idea that we need to have all of the answers and ask our broader organization and community for ideas
  3. Let go of perfectionism - it is easier to face our fears of failure when we accept that what we do does not have to be perfect
  4. Practice gratitude – gratitude shifts our mindset to one where we see opportunity, rather than scarcity

2.   Talk Directly to Customers
Innovation starts with identifying an urgent and expensive customer problem. There are many tools we can typically use to identify customer needs (surveys, focus groups, etc.). But our best tool right now is to directly talk to customers and end-users.

Speaking directly with customers is the fastest way to understand the challenges they are facing and what they need to address those challenges. People want to hear human voices now, too. I especially caution against email surveys, landing page or email testing right now because things are so chaotic that it might get lost in the noise. Instead, let’s use this time to talk to customers while also building connections.
3.    Follow Your Process, Quickly
Just because we are in crisis does not mean we throw out good product innovation hygiene.  We still need to validate the consumer need, test, and learn. We just massively fast cycle the process. Two-week sprints become one-week sprints (or less).  The Director of the FDA recently spoke at a press conference where he said, “Innovation that normally takes years is being pushed to a month.”  That doesn’t mean they are throwing due diligence out the door. They are just accelerating that diligence.  

4.   Build Flexibly 
Once we start building a new product, the architecture should be as flexible as possible because things are shifting rapidly.  For example, use a more modular architecture, place a premium on flexibility when making design decisions, and delay hard-coded decisions until products are tested.

I’d love to hear how your organizations are innovating despite having constraints and uncertainty– share some inspiration, please!