What a Crisis Teaches Us About Innovation

Understanding why it’s easier to develop new ideas and drive change during an emergency can help leaders innovate even in the absence of a crisis.

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Necessity, as the saying goes, is the mother of invention. As the COVID-19 crisis spread during the first half of 2020, organizations innovated at a much faster pace than they normally could have. Emergency room teams in Michigan rigged ventilators by adding a second tube to double capacity and ventilate two patients at a time. Chinese scientists sequenced the new COVID-19 virus in a record three weeks. Multiple teams from Oxford, London, and Boston developed a potential vaccine and began testing it in less than two months. And the U.K.’s National Health Service built a 4,000-bed hospital in just four days.

Why is it that innovation seems more possible during a crisis? More important, how might organizations sustain similar levels of innovation once the crisis has passed? In our work with both public- and private-sector organizations, we have identified five interdependent conditions that characterize a crisis and boost innovation.

  • A crisis provides a sudden and real sense of urgency.
  • This urgency enables organizations to drop all other priorities and focus on a single challenge, reallocating resources as needed.
  • With this singular focus and reallocated resources, it’s now everybody’s job to come together to solve the problem, bringing a new diversity of viewpoints and perspectives.
  • This urgency and singular focus legitimizes what would otherwise constitute “waste,” allowing for more experimentation and learning.
  • Because the crisis is only temporary, the organization can commit to a highly intense effort over a short period of time.

Leaders can replicate proxy crisis conditions as a way to generate more effective innovation in noncrisis times. However, that requires a deeper understanding of the issues at play in each of the five conditions.

1. A crisis provides a sudden and real sense of urgency. Proximity to a grave problem creates a critical sense of urgency, focusing attention and galvanizing action.



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4. Elsbeth Johnson has termed this the Drama Delusion, and it particularly affects leaders in larger and older companies. See E. Johnson, “The Four Delusions of Leadership,” Dialogue Review, May 15, 2020, https://dialoguereview.com.

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8. L. Eisenstadt, “How Broad Institute Converted a Clinical Processing Lab Into a Large-Scale COVID-19 Testing Facility in a Matter of Days,” Broad Institute, March 27, 2020, www.broadinstitute.org.

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10. D. Rock, H. Grant, and J. Grey, “Diverse Teams Feel Less Comfortable — and That’s Why They Perform Better,” Harvard Business Review, Sept. 22, 2016, https://hbr.org.

11. P. Stokes, “Crossing Disciplines: A Constraint-Based Model of the Creative/Innovative Process,” The Journal of Product Innovation Management 31, no. 2 (October 2013): 247-258.

12. Johnson, “Step Up, Step Back.”

13. I.A. Hamilton, “Bill Gates Is Funding New Factories for Seven Potential Coronavirus Vaccines,” Business Insider, April 3, 2020, www.businessinsider.com.

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15. T. Amabile and S.J. Kramer, “The Power of Small Wins,” Harvard Business Review 89, no. 5 (May 2011): 70-80.

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Comment (1)
Clement GAVI
'What a Crisis Teaches Us About Innovation' That the idea which is the representation that the thought has about the being, in term of what is, is always an answer or a responsiveness. What is, inspires ideas. This is why crisis by requiring solutions inspire ideas in unusual ways. 

The other thing is the ideas in innovation have a spatio-temporal dimension. For instance in the era of new technologies, with AI, etc the perception of the problem and the conception of the answer, deploy the given of  in the era, . For instance if Covid=19 had happened in another era different from that of the new technologies, the ideas that innovate will reflect what that era has as peculiarities.

The possibility to think in unusual way, the questioning of what is, are ways through which ideas flow.