Updated: Apr 15, 2021
If necessity is the mother of invention, then a crisis is the lifeblood of innovation. The dynamics in a crisis tend to support an environment that delivers significant and profound innovation in the market. The trick is to go about it in a manner that adds value as opposed to a knee-jerk reaction out of fear. You can use a crisis as an advantage for innovation.
When a crisis hits you tend to have less money and often significantly fewer resources, which makes a crisis is a great driver for change, innovation and sometimes a really needed (and awesome) kick in the pants to shift gears in your organisation. To get there, we need to get comfortable with the uncomfortable truths that it will highlight. Times of crisis, economic downturn and external shocks highlight weaknesses and gaps in your organisation, whether they be technology, human capital or structural.
It is an opportunity to see these weaknesses and gaps as gifts, because being unaware of these creates a negative relationship between innovation and capacity of your people to deliver.
I’m a Corporate Innovation and Digital Transformation expert and I work with Boards, leadership teams and innovation leaders to turn a crisis into an opportunity. To support them I give them my C-R-I-S-I-S model to reframe their thinking:
C – Control & Change
Crisis hits and this is not the time to get crazy and spin out of control. It’s time to control all urges to dissect and over analyse the situation. Let’s leave that for the academics and economists. There’ll be time afterwards to have a thorough retrospective and assess systems, processes and people coming into the crisis. Today, our job is to focus on the horizon, control the narrative and focus everyone on the job ahead – innovate, adapt and try our best find something good in a bad situation. Control the narrative and re-frame it to focus on positive opportunities for change.
A crisis demands change. Stay as you are, and chances are you will be one of the casualties of the market. Control the focus and attention on the problems at hand so you can increase the speed of ideation, incubation, decision making and implementation of ideas. There may be a portfolio of sensational ideas, but the focus needs to be on the ones that will alleviate the pain and create the greatest gain in the immediate short to medium term.
R- Re-engineer your process.
Organisations and business of all sizes find a process or methodology that works for them and they stick with it. The predictability and stability of a known process with a measurable level of efficiency provides comfort and an ease for how a business can be planned and managed. A crisis throws all of this out the window. With external factors driving changes in the market and often changing the rules of the game, you may need to think about problems you had previously solved because the solutions are no longer viable, or it highlights weaknesses and gaps in your current process.
The benefit of a crisis, particularly something that moved as rapidly as COVID-19, is the speed at which we need to respond reduces the bureaucratic process and overthinking that is often applied when strategizing and approving processes. Not only has the decision cycle time been reduced but space has been made for new and creative solutions. Fresh thinking to address the challenging times ahead. Seize these opportunities to re-engineer processes and systems for greater efficiency or change.
I – Inspire
There’s nothing like a crisis to focus everyone’s attention on the same goal. This is the perfect opportunity to unite around a purpose. As a leader your role will be to focus the energy of your people toward the purpose of crisis resolution. Whilst it can seem a little scary and driven by fear, a crisis tends to give leaders a “failure is not an option” mindset. When we feel that there’s no safety net or that failure is not a viable option this can create an incredible shift in the organisational mindset and encourages a level of perseverance and courage to take action that may have previously been unthinkable.
Typically, we see a large shift away from discretionary effort to one that unlocks and uncovers a wave of new ideas that people feel compelled to share, whereas in a buoyant market they may have kept it to themselves. Harness this momentum to dig into the ideas that you may not have considered in the good times to understand - you never know what genius you may uncover.
S – Spotlight
Change the way you look - change the way you see. Times of crisis and downturns really put the spotlight on areas of weakness, vulnerabilities and pain points in the organisation. It can provide a new lens and perspective over what we thought was OK or maybe not considered high enough of a priority to tackle. At this point there is nowhere to hide, and we can see (worts and all) the systems, processes and areas of the business that just aren’t working. Place the spotlight on the areas that aren’t working or are having problems and make these areas the focal point for where we need to target our innovation efforts.
This is not the time to white-knuckle it and hope for the best. More than ever, you need to support innovation with a process and structure – critical innovation flow - to maintain the speed, cadence and most importantly keep an eye on the outcome. This is the time to experiment, play and test new ideas, technologies and ways of working, but you need to put some boundaries, structure and just enough process to ensure it stays on track and delivers viable outcomes.
I – Insights
Don’t be driven by fear – be driven by the insights of both your internal and external customers. Needs change, supply lines are cut and orders disappear. It’s time to find the opportunities. But this is not the time to fall into the trap of ‘innovate or die’ thinking. Turn your attention the problems, pain points and changes that are happening for your internal or external customers and this is where you will find the greatest space for opportunity.
Whilst it’s interesting to understand what your peers and competitors are doing, this is the time to double down on your focus to improve the outcomes for your customers. There are enough distractions with external market shocks in times of downturn, if you focus on solving the problems of your internal and external customers you will be opening up windows of opportunity that others may not.
S – Success through being Swift
This is not the time to overthink or get caught up in the traditional bureaucratic process of decision making and approval cycles. As our leaders are learning on the fly how to rapidly respond to the continual changes, we need to enable our teams to rapidly move through incubation, testing and implementation of ideas. The rapid shift to home working and online platforms highlighted to organisations that not only can we move significantly faster than we originally planned for, our staff and customers are more open and resilient to change than we give them credit for.
It’s time to put away the theatre of innovation, pack up the beanbags and get into the real business of innovation. Innovation is not for a selected few people, it’s the job of everyone inside the organisation. We can’t be fast and swift to success unless we empower our people to act. Provide the boundaries, define the non-negotiables and then let your people go and get it done. Remember innovation is about doing, not about talking or burying into the busyness of work. Make a conscious bias towards continuous and relentless execution on a daily basis and you will have solutions to test in market.
When a crisis hits, and they continually will happen from time to time and we won’t always have the right plans or structures in place to manage the fall out. We can reframe our thinking to focus on turning the gaps and vulnerabilities into opportunities.