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.
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.
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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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