Crisis-Driven Innovation — A Wake-Up Call

There is nothing like a crisis to fuel innovation. In a crisis, people and businesses can behave in extraordinary ways. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, innovation and invention jumped to the fore as industries pivoted. Distillers and brewers repurposed alcohol for hand sanitizers, and engineering companies made ventilators. Vaccinations were developed and released in record times, accelerating the adoption of genomics medicine through the first ever licensing of mRNA vaccines. At the heart of all this great innovation was a desire to solve problems through collaboration for the benefit of humanity. We saw innovation rooted in purpose and people working together for a common goal.

Business does not have to be any different. In the world of business, we are often guilty of not challenging the norm. We stick to established governance, decision-making, and budget approval processes and are satisfied with following procedure and tradition. It is only when things go wrong, or we experience a powerful shock like COVID-19 as a wake-up call, that we jump into action. The accepted realities are forgotten because we need rapid answers outside of the usual daily business norms. Throughout the pandemic, command and control was relaxed, and autonomy accelerated decision-making to disrupt these norms.

Seize Innovation Adaptation For Future Growth

The key to seizing post-crisis growth opportunities is to learn, apply, and embed these cultural shifts as new ways of innovative working. Allow these new adaptive and creative habits and behaviours that have emerged to continue. Recognise the key attributes for successful innovation in a crisis:

  • Willingness and openness to collaborate
  • Sense of urgency
  • Shared purpose and focus
  • Need to scale fast
  • Quick (imperfect) decision-making
  • Adaptability before whole-scale invention

It was these characteristics that enabled leaders to drive digital transformation initiatives to be delivered in weeks and months, not months and years. Many question if organisations can repeat or maintain this transformation success in the new world. Leaders can build on this momentum with the right future fit strategy and a sustainable innovation approach.

Innovation can take many forms — from whole-scale invention to finding niche solutions to niche problems. Adaptation is the most effective innovation strategy in a crisis. For example, if we look at the UK government’s “ventilator challenge,” three strategies were displayed — produce, procure, and repurpose — but one was a complete failure. Initially, manufacturers were faced with the hard challenge of designing ventilators from scratch, but they failed to meet the precise medical needs. This was hardly surprising when the top German manufacturer had decades of experience. Designing from scratch is hard, especially in a crisis situation. Procuring from existing suppliers makes sense. Why reinvent? Repurposing existing designs also leads to success. Radical technology leaps are not always necessary. Innovative technology exists — we just need to find and apply it.