Photo by Sean Mungur on Unsplash

Innovation is Needed Now More Than Ever

It was like falling off a cliff. Life went from “business as usual” to a state of chaos and confusion when the reality of COVID-19 hit our lives. Are we safe? What if I get sick? What about financial security? Is there a new normal? What if…what if….what if?

During times of crisis, it is hard to think about tomorrow, much less figure out how to shape it. Survival is focused on the immediate and necessary instead of the future and possible. This uncertainty is completely understandable but it is also essential to recognize that innovation to shape the future and create the possible is what nurtures security, stability, and potential.

For those who innovate, uncertainty is a constant. Quite literally, the drive to innovate often grows out of a question to answer or a need to solve. For the most part, that’s a generally hopeful state of affairs fueled by possibility. What we’re experiencing right now — up close and personal — is uncertainty and a call to innovation, but it’s significantly less rosy.

Over the course of a mere matter of months, innovation has become a survival mechanism.

Innovation, Threat, and Imperative

For some, the pressure of threats like those we’re experiencing now can crush the innovative mindset. At a time like this, it is difficult to think beyond the present. For others, the pressure and the swirl of uncertainty are fuel for thinking differently, making big decisions quickly, and going forth bravely and with urgency to take mission-critical steps.

Some may say that innovation is a luxury right now. The reality is for some companies, many long-term innovation projects will be slashed, budgets cut and priorities shifted. In some cases, these are necessary moves for survival. In other cases, they are the result of shifting priorities.

Even at a personal level, the innovation mindset is challenged right now. The courage to innovate is always a risk. In this environment, it may be perceived as unnecessary. But innovation is rooted in taking risks and pushing boundaries. It’s difficult in the best of times. So how can you have the confidence to take additional risk when you don’t even understand what is in front of you today? Are people going to be open to new ideas?

I believe the answer is yes. Constraints can fuel the best innovation. Constraints on resources, time or support can be the catalyst to inspire innovation that is necessary, rather than ‘nice.’ At the moment, we are surrounded by constraints. Innovation may not happen the same way or with similar resources, or even with the same objective….but innovation will happen.

If there’s ever been a time when innovation is needed, it’s now. And if there’s ever been a time when innovation is happening, it’s now. Courageous, creative ideas — backed by action — are how we’ll make it through the overwhelming environment of change happening in our organizations, societies, and economies. It’s how we’ll absorb and use the external impacts as they hit, either mitigating their impacts or optimizing to move forward from our new position. Innovation is literally life and death for economies, industries, organizations, and people.

Innovation Has Been Born In Times of Crisis

Walt Disney launched his entertainment empire in 1920's, on the heels of the Great Depression. The company has continued to launch new ideas. Even as their theme parks are closed indefinitely right now, their stories flood the digital world. Electronic Arts (EA) launched in 1982, during what was some of the worst unemployment rates seen in decades, caused by the 1979 energy crisis. It remains a leader in gaming. Some of today’s biggest companies were formed and strengthened as a result of the 2008 crisis, and have gone on to reshape consumer behaviors and markets. Facebook launched in 2004, before the Great Recession — Airbnb and Warby Parker came directly afterward in 2008 and 2010, respectively.

The specific stories behind these innovative organizations vary but there are a few commonalities. Most importantly, the organizations innovated with an eye and a mind fixed firmly on meeting human needs.

Successful entrepreneurs, innovators, and people leaders attest to the critical importance of empathy. Emotional intelligence (EQ) is at least as important as intellectual quotient (IQ) for recognizing the impact of an idea on the people it will serve. And innovating in a crisis demands EQ maturity levels we have perhaps only just trained for until now.

Empathy is a guardrail that keeps human needs at the center of our focus. Whether we are working close up for the survival of our bottom line, our employee base, and our customer base — or we’re working to shape the future of an industry, an economy, or humanity — people are involved.

For as heartbreaking as this pandemic crisis is proving to be, it’s also provided some of the most incredible examples of empathic innovation history has ever seen.

We only have to look at the work happening in bioscience/healthcare to see creative and collaborative problem solving as scientists race for vaccines and treatments. They are innovating for the actual survival of mankind. Time is the constraint and there is a relentless effort to produce solutions faster than time.

Outside the hospitals, we’re also witnessing incredible pivots. Forced innovation to develop new business models that can expand reach, move faster, and fill gaps to solve fundamental human needs. Atlanta-based GoodrCo. has rapidly iterated its food waste logistics framework to meet the exploding need for groceries. Through strategic partnerships with organizations like the United Way, State Farm, the Atlanta Hawks, and local schools, they have created temporary fulfillment centers, supply chains, and distribution models that have kept thousands of people fed each week.

Some of these changes are temporary, some are permanent, and some are seeds for massive shifts in the future.

We have every reason to believe that many of the current innovations will last. Healthcare innovation will continue to grow exponentially. How we serve small businesses is shifting. The travel industry is suffering now, but you can expect real innovation in this industry as it restarts. Grocery store processes and supply chains are streamlining in real time. Entertainment companies (and entertainers) are rapidly adopting how they deliver content, fueled by reception and delight of audiences.

For you, the question is how do you rise now, in this time of uncertainty, to use the power of innovation to positively shape the future?

People at the Center

We use the examples of industries and businesses, but the reality is that it is the people inside them who, focused by empathy and driven by an innovative mindset, are making progress happen. They are innovating with compassion to help those in need or to support the morale of the masses. And they’re doing it because they care.

Chances are high that well before the crisis hit, many of these people were motivated by the promise of making a positive measurable impact on their organization. But even if not, they do now. As we go forward, these empathetic innovators are the kinds of people we want on our teams and in leadership because they have grit. They care enough to pursue a solution from idea all the way through. They are confusion tolerant in the face of optimistic or frightening uncertainty, willing to work toward the intent.

While it may be hard to think about the future, the seeds of innovation are being planted. For some, this time of unrest and ‘new normal’ presents an opportunity to learn and grow. Tomorrow is incredibly uncertain. Persevering will take a willingness to accept uncertainty and an innovative mindset. Now’s the time to stay focused on the future, position yourself to survive, and lay a foundation to thrive.

As an innovator you need to innovate and pivot yourself. Be empathetic, flexible, grounded, and positive. Here’s how.

  • Expand and extend empathy, both to those you care for, and those with whom you have the opportunity to collaborate.
  • Understand and accept the new realities and work with them. Help your organization embrace them.
  • Pivot to the short-term to help the viability of your business through the crisis. If you’re an entrepreneur, this is 100% of your focus. If you’re in a large organization, know how your function can innovate and help in the short-term.
  • Reevaluate the mid and long-term and reposition your strategic innovation work to adjust to the “new normal” of how consumers and economies will behave later this year, next year, and beyond.
  • Readjust your change management approach, especially in large organizations. Stay connected to focusing on what has to happen now, while still working on the future.
  • Innovate yourself and build your capacity to understand the immediate and the courage to shape the future.

During these unprecedented times, it is essential that we embrace innovation to solve our immediate challenges. In some cases, doing so will determine our survival and in all cases, we must recognize the trends that will shape the future. The process will require empathy and organizational courage to take risk when risk is what the world fears. It also requires that we evolve, innovate, and strengthen our personal innovator’s mindset. This is not the time to retreat. It’s time to move forward for self, business, and humanity.

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Innovation, brand, and corporate strategist with more than 25 years of experience in corporate, entrepreneurial, and civic roles. @disruptorstudio @atlchamber

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Alex Gonzalez

Alex Gonzalez

Innovation, brand, and corporate strategist with more than 25 years of experience in corporate, entrepreneurial, and civic roles. @disruptorstudio @atlchamber

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