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October 25, 2020

How to Pursue Innovation in a Crisis

Summary:

It’s common in crises to pause or cut investments, including in innovation, yet this is an incredible time to innovate. Here are five tips.

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No business has escaped the impacts of COVID-19. Whether a company is managing demand that is skyrocketing or plummeting, finding workarounds for a fractured supply chain or enabling employees to work safely or from remote locations, leaders have been forced to take on priorities that few could have imagined. They are reshaping priorities, reassigning resources, reducing and eliminating expenses and making dramatic organizational changes. They are making split-second decisions with incomplete information, uncertainty about the future and no experience managing through a pandemic.

It’s common in crises to pause or cut investments, and innovation may be among the first areas seen as expendable when belt-tightening. Yet, this is an incredible time to innovate. Important, unsolved problems with potential to scale are everywhere. The situation is manageable with the right mindset, by taking actions that are within a leader’s control.

Here are five recommendations to advance innovation at a time when resources are tight:

Start by revalidating your innovation priorities

That list of priorities that you entered 2020 with, which seemed baked into the annual plan? You may need to scrap or temporarily shelve pet initiatives that no longer make sense, however frustrating and disappointing that feels. Take stock of what matters the most right now. Look at the innovation plan and align with the overall strategy of the business. Priorities will continue to shift, so continue to listen carefully and be educated about the business’ overall performance.

What external signals are you looking at to be able to detect where the innovation spaces have shifted?

What customer insights—qualitative and quantitative—are you accessing to understand how market needs have changed, and what this means to the innovation road map?

Make sure that the greatest sources of customer value make it to the top of the priority list. Stop things that do not make sense.

Challenge the orthodoxies of what is required to innovate

Think like a startup founder and take budget off the critical path to making progress on new concepts with evidence of potential. Startups don’t have big budgets to hire market research firms, buy syndicated studies or build production-ready systems. They are scrappy. The few people involved roll up their sleeves and figure out how to drive progress to generate enough evidence that, even in a scarce resource environment, seed capital can be justified.

I have shared the story of a particularly resourceful founder who built his first product prototype from parts he and his son scrounged one Saturday morning in an auto parts junkyard. Where’s your junkyard? How can you get to the next milestone on “good enough” terms to expand your base of support?

See also: COVID-19: Technology, Investment, Innovation

Overhaul execution processes that no longer make sense

Great innovators are skilled at asking the right questions, the right way. In any established organization, execution and decision-making processes that may work well for running a mature business are in all likelihood inappropriate for creating what’s next.

Ask, “Why do we do it this way?” and you may be surprised at the answers; it could well be that nobody knows—it’s just always been that way. Asking this simple question could open the opportunity to set aside outmoded practices, replacing them with agile techniques that improve the clock speed and quality of your work.

Rethink the hows of delivery to do more with less

Startup team members often “multi-hat.” They take an all-hands-on-deck approach to closing resource gaps. To do this successfully, though, requires team members who are capable of stretching beyond the boundaries of specialist roles. Effective multi-hatters:

  • Are curious and continuous learners, pursuing opportunities to expand their skills.
  • Collaborate, reaching out to colleagues and members of their networks for help and advice.
  • Contribute to a culture where diverse perspectives are welcome and people feel included.

Borrow from the field of improvisation

Trained improvisation artists are models of resourcefulness. Improvisation is all about learning and doing on the fly—having a second or two to react to what just happened, and not really knowing what is coming beyond your contribution.

Anyone can learn the basic skills of improvisation. The core principle is captured in just two words: “Yes, and…” Make sure you are a “yes, and” person, not a “no, but” type, and you will invite creativity and constructive problem-solving that will move concepts forward far more efficiently.

“Yes, and” is a simple tool that can make any innovator more effective.

See also: 3 Silver Linings From COVID-19

As companies across the world tighten expenses and investment budgets while striving for resilience and sustainability in a suddenly changed world, the need to advance innovation in all of its many forms is an imperative. Finding ways to advance the organization’s innovation priorities takes extreme focus, new ways of working and alignment with the business’ strategy. Leaders who can enable innovation under today’s resource constraints will unlock the many opportunities being created by the pandemic and its effects and will thrive in this environment and whatever comes next.

You can find this article originally published here.

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About the Author

Amy Radin is the author of The Change Maker’s Playbook: How to Seek, Seed and Scale Innovation in Any Company. Amy has been at the forefront of rewiring businesses for the future, moving ideas to performance and insights to impact at companies including American Express, Citi, E*TRADE, and AXA.

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