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How the coronavirus crisis shines a light on innovation

Crises can improve our ability and willingness to collaborate and innovate – but why is that? How and what can we learn from this?

Rob Sheffield was recently interviewed by Solverboard and shared his thoughts on innovation we’re seeing happening now.

Why is there more innovation in a crisis?

Since the start of the coronavirus, we’ve seen innovation happening all around us – and at speed. They’ve all been been driven by immediate need. It seems that the combined imperative of time and necessity helps us to think creatively, both adapting what we have and creating brand new and novel ways of doing things.

Examples of these quickly-formed and delivered innovations include:

  • The GoodSam app which harnesses the time and energies of volunteers to support the work of the NHS. In other times it might have taken months to develop and launch, but it gained 750,000 volunteers in a month.
  • Product designers in Italy who created valves for ventilators in three hours for hospitals who’d run out of them.
  • Businesses around the UK who have adapted their capabilities to manufacturing PPE (gowns and masks) or hand sanitiser to meet current demand and lack of supply.

Rob Sheffield comments: “Why are we seeing all this innovation? It’s not like billions of people went on an innovation training course. It’s purely about need. That’s what’s driving it all.

“We all understand the purpose. What’s happened is that people right now are very motivated to make stuff and we’re learning skills that we need as we go along.”

Innovation loves constraints

Context is also important. Different environments help us to think and behave in different ways – often quite radically different. Innovation labs are a good example of this – they create a new and unfamiliar context, away from our everyday environment. This in turn encourages us to challenge our ‘everyday’ thinking and assumptions and move away from ways of working and thinking that have become habits.

As Google’s VP of search products, Marissa Mayer, said: “Creativity loves constraints”. Given a problem, with a set number of resources or limitations, that’s when we’re best at thinking ourselves out of that box.

“When you’ve got something compellingly urgent, that’s a massive tick for innovation. I think too often people want ideas for things that don’t matter enough to enough people. So, what we have now is a ton of motivation to solve real problems.”

“Because if we’re creatures of habit most of the time, we’ll probably slip into auto-pilot. We do things we’ve done before.

“Right now, because we’re constrained and we can’t do things in a normal way, it forces us to really think about things and we’re probably having to explore new ways of doing things. At the moment, we’re being very out of the box because we have to be.”

Adversity makes us more tolerant and compassionate

For innovation to happen, people need to be unafraid of ‘failure’ or criticism. All ideas are valid in the early stages of innovation – the more, the better in this ‘divergent thinking’ stage.

The ‘we’re all in this together’ nature of adversity brings people together and makes people more tolerate of each other and forgiving of our differences.

The situation, and the present problem, focuses our attention and helps us to work collaboratively to solve that problem. This team-working is critical to successful innovation.

“We are all experimenting with each other. Nothing we do has to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be right the first time. People are quite forgiving and quite compassionate towards each other.

“I think there are some emotional aspects to this that are helpful for innovation. The vast majority of people, I think, are trying to be generous. Let’s test things, whether it be WhatsApp or a Facebook group in your street, in your postcode. What we see at a city level and a community level is that people are happy to improvise and make it up as they go along.”

Whilst innovation and problem-solving has been central to how we’re responding to this crisis, the real challenge is learning from that innovation and embedding the agility and team-work beyond our current situation. We’ve seen exemplars of team-work and collaboration within companies, between companies, across neighbourhoods and cities, even across countries through global organisations. What a positive legacy it would be to harness this way of working in the future.

If you’d like help translating current innovation practices into a longer-lasting way of working, give us a call. That’s exactly the kind of thing we help clients to do.

Email or call him on 07811 944782 for an initial chat.

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