The Best Time to Innovate Is During Times of Crisis
Leaders don’t grow when they’re confined within their comfort zones. Think about your last great idea: You didn’t arrive at it when you were feeling lethargic or unproductive, which can happen when you’ve held yourself captive to your routine for too long. No, it was likely sparked by a flash of imagination, or perhaps it was a lucrative lesson learned from a failed endeavor.
Ingenuity and boldness thrive when we least expect it. Leaders in crisis mode often develop their best ideas when they’re under pressure, which makes one saying ring so true: “Creativity loves constraints.”
We’re currently in the midst of unprecedented crises and constraints. The pandemic has upended everything: Both our personal lives (how we live and connect with others) and our professional lives (how we satisfy changes in consumer behavior and how we manage our employees) have been capsized. There is no playbook for such disruption; you either figure out how to survive in crisis mode or you don’t survive. It may seem irresponsible to try to identify a silver lining in this pandemic, but it has been a catalyst for incredible change.
A leading consulting company, McKinsey & Co., has found that more than 90% of executives say they expect the impacts of Covid-19 to radically change their business practices for at least the next five years. Many said they believe the pandemic will also have a lasting impact on how consumers engage with businesses. Such deep-rooted impacts should come as no surprise, given how fundamentally life-changing this pandemic has been and continues to be. Businesses can no longer operate like they once did. What gave you a competitive edge in your industry might no longer carry the same benefit in a post-Covid-19 world.
Crises are like electricity for innovation. Leaders must try to use what’s out of their control to empower change. Below are three ways a crisis can inspire transformation.
We’re all guilty of accepting entrenched orthodoxies as truth. How many times have you asked a question only to hear in response, “This is the way things have always been done”? And how many processes, methodologies and systems have been stagnated by that reflexive truism, only to cause significant — and often irreversible — damage to companies down the road?
Many orthodoxies likely held true at certain points of time, but too often they went unchecked and unchallenged. Decades passed, and those outdated orthodoxies continued to influence, if not control, important decisions. From my perspective, most innovative ideas have been inspired by breaking traditions, not adhering to orthodoxies.
Take Zappos, the online shoe and clothing retailer, for example: Its entire business challenged the longstanding assumption that customers wouldn’t buy shoes unless they could try them on first. Now, Zappos is owned by Amazon (and was bought for $1.2 billion), and I believe it continues to one-up itself. Recently, Zappos began allowing consumers to buy one shoe at a time, an unheard-of practice which made it even more inclusive than other major shoe retailers that have always sold shoes in pairs only.
Uniting Around A Purpose
All leaders must conquer the challenge of aligning their employees’ focus toward a common goal and inciting the energy needed to achieve it. A crisis normally eases that challenge, and almost without any prodding. When confronted with a crisis, your employees will invariably know they have an end goal to achieve through collaboration and quick decision-making. The crisis will spark the energy needed to achieve that goal.
Moreover, this rush of collective energy will create a snowballing of ideas. New leaders will emerge to ensure that everything stays on track, and reticent employees will be motivated to contribute. It’s incredibly satisfying to watch your team go on autopilot mode and tackle an issue head-on with an urgency never before displayed. And while such employee innovations are inspired by, and designed to solve, an urgent problem, I believe they reflect at heart our innate desire as human beings to serve those in need.
The pandemic has repeatedly displayed this urgent sense of innovativeness and togetherness. When grocery stores ran out of hand sanitizer, distilleries stepped in to fill the void. When healthcare workers suffered without personal protective equipment, apparel companies quickly banded together to ensure there wasn’t a shortage of masks. Even the unpredictability of the pandemic itself ushered in new medical devices that have improved healthcare processes across the globe.
Business owners will often hire consultants to examine their company’s methodologies and offerings and to identify what’s working and what’s not. Such detailed introspection should be on a leader’s radar all the time, but it’s easy to lose sight of various facets of your business when you’re subsumed with the big-picture responsibilities of running a company. Outside consultants can provide a fresh perspective and pinpoint areas that you might have overlooked.
Think of a crisis as a consultant. Much like a new set of eyes, an unprecedented event can shine a spotlight on your operational weaknesses and problem areas. Crises compel us to promptly confront our vulnerabilities; absent a crisis, such vulnerabilities can lurk in the darkness like an unknown illness, precluding innovation and ultimately threatening survival.
By exposing unknown vulnerabilities, crises enable and empower your organization to address them and emerge stronger than ever before. By doing so, your company will not only rectify weaknesses that were reducing efficiency and profitability, but also develop a new structure that will inspire and support the competitive ideas that spur growth.
As companies evolve, their practices begin to harden as they seek efficiency and stability. Such hardened practices are often beneficial, but allowing them to remain stagnant will eventually reduce inventiveness and creativity. Crises force us to identify longstanding problems, learn and adapt quickly, and move forward in the face of unexpected challenges. Embracing the urgency of a crisis inspires innovation.