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Phoenix strategies for crisis innovation

When you’re in the middle of the swamp and the alligators are snapping at your legs you can be forgiven for not giving too much precious headspace to thinking about plans for draining the swamp.  But assuming you get out of that scrape in one piece it might be worth it. 

The same is true for our current experience of a crisis-shaken world thanks to Covid-19.  Even though there are very pressing concerns it might be useful to pause for a moment and try to draw out some insights and lessons which we might be able to leverage in the future, helping to create organizations which are a little less fragile. 

A good place to begin is to remind ourselves of the word’s origin – ‘crisis’ comes from the Greek and means ‘turning point’.  While it may feel right now as if we’re slamming into a brick wall at high velocity it’s also clear that our future trajectories may not be quite the same.  And that’s particularly true about our approach to innovation.

Image - Oliver Roos, Unsplash

Crisis is a powerful stimulus for innovation, a trigger for thinking about how to make it happen differently.  Under normal circumstances we spend a lot of time worrying about how to ‘get out of the box’ – crisis unceremoniously throws us out and we have to find new ways of working.  It’s emphatically not ‘business as usual’; we need novel responses.

For most is us, thankfully, crisis is a rare experience, mostly arriving unexpectedly.  But in some places, it’s the normal. 

Imagine the scene, immediately after an earthquake.  In a few short moments a whole city is devastated.  Buildings collapse on each other, roads are torn apart, infrastructure smashed to pieces, communications severed, vital supplies suddenly cut off.  Chaos. 

Image Jon Warren

This is the typical aftermath of a humanitarian disaster.  This happens to be Haiti after the 2010 earthquake, but we’ve got plenty of other examples to choose from.  Earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tidal waves, famine – there’s no shortage of natural disasters and if we wanted to add to our miserable list there are plenty of man- made examples to add to the pile. 

The challenge in this space is of course one of innovation. It’s about solving problems quickly, often as a matter literally of life and death, of survival.  And it’s a context in which ‘normal’ solution pathways may be blocked, we can’t use the approaches we would normally apply.

The good news is that innovation happens here.  Again and again, demonstrating (if we needed a reminder) of the wonderful ways in which human creativity can find ways around obstacles.  Let’s go back to Haiti and that earthquake aftermath – despite the chaos on the ground within a few short hours innovation began crawling out from beneath the rubble.  In the days which followed hundreds of examples of problem-solving emerged, gathering momentum, building to a scale of response which helped the city get back on its feet.    

  1. Creating an ‘instant’ banking system across which aid agencies could distribute cash to buy food, medicines and other essentials

  2. Open street mapping to provide up-to-date information about affected populations, damaged infrastructure, key emergency locations, etc.

  3. Reuniting displaced persons using the phone network as a database and communications centre

  4. Deploying 3D printing to quickly produce badly needed spare parts for hospitals – and mobilizing an army of online volunteer designers to supply the key software

  5. Providing translation services to render urgent information in regional dialects – again with the help of an international network of volunteer translators

This isn’t an isolated case – humanitarian innovation happens repeatedly and in similar fashion.  So we might be able to explore some of the patterns in this world and extract some insights and possible strategies for working with crisis-driven innovation.

It might be useful to begin with a simple map of the crisis innovation space – the nature of the innovation challenge.  Because it is fundamentally one of forced reframing.  Under ‘normal’ conditions our organizations develop ways of making innovation happen both in terms of incremental (doing what we do but better) and radical (doing something different).  These recipes, repertoires and routines work fine – but when the frame changes, when we are forced to take new things into account, where our old way of framing the world is pushed aside, then we have to develop novel approaches. 

This ‘twilight zone’ is essentially uncertain, short on information, requires us to work in a fog and innovate by experimenting, probing and learning.  It’s the kind of space which entrepreneurs are used to, tolerating ambiguity and taking risks, embracing a degree of failure to enable fast learning.

So what approaches might organizations take in this space?  There seem to be four core themes which emerge repeatedly:

Image RhondaK Unsplash

Enhanced inspiration – this is a space where focused ‘collective intelligence’ can make a difference, bringing to bear many different minds and perspectives rapidly to open up solution possibilities. We’re increasingly aware of the power of ‘crowdsourcing’ solutions, getting many minds to focus quickly on the same challenge. 

In fact this isn’t a new idea – the principle traces right back to early ‘innovation contests’.   For example in early 18th century Britain there was a crisis confronting its very identity as a major maritime power – its ships kept getting lost, sometimes with tragic consequences.  The cause was a lack of accurate navigation which in turn could be traced to an inability to calculate longitude because there wasn’t a reliable portable timepiece available for ships to carry.   Under pressure from both the merchant and civilian navies the Admiralty commented that “…nothing is so much wanted and desired at sea, as the discovery of the longitude, for the safety and quickness of voyages, the preservation of ships, and the lives of men…”.  This led to the 1714 Longitude Act in which the British Government offered a huge prize for a solution which could find longitude to within half a degree (equivalent to 2 minutes of time).  The contest was eventually won by a carpenter named John Harrison, but not before it had  had the effect of mobilising countless minds on the focussed task in hand – and set a pattern for future use of this approach.

For example, just across the Channel key food preservation technologies like canning and the use of margarine as an alternative to butter (which goes rancid after a few days) owe their origins to similar innovation contests designed to deal with the crisis conditions linked to conducting military operations. 

So using such approaches in humanitarian crises makes sense, especially where there is an increasingly available set of technologies to enable collection, capture and development of crowdsourced ideas.  Examples include the use of crowdsourcing to provide inputs of ideas and skills to develop open street maps, generate design files for 3D printing of spare parts or linking together linguists to help offer translation services in local languages and dialects.  All of these use a mixture of human creativity and knowledge linked across technological pathways and focussed on key crisis challenges.

Image Jessica Palomo, Unsplash

Entrepreneurial improvisation – by definition crisis may often bring with it a lack of resources so solutions need to be built from ‘frugal’ principles, making do with whatever is to hand.  It’s like the TV show ‘scrapheap challenge’, often involving adaptation or repurposing, what is sometimes called ‘bricolage’.   Perhaps the most famous example of this occurred during the Apollo 13 crisis when the world held its breath following Jim Lovell’s laconic message back to Mission Control  – ‘Houston, we’ve had a problem’.     With one of its main oxygen tanks ruptured and with the clock ticking away the teams on the ground and in the module had to improvise solutions fast.  Famously they had a problem with securing enough breathable oxygen for three men in a capsule only designed to take two – and so built an air purifier system using plastic covers from their flight plans, plastic bags, some sticky tape and a soggy sock!  It worked.

Such repurposing and adaptation is a common experience in disaster zones where solutions are improvised and then refined.  For example the White Hats a volunteer response team trying to deal with the aftermath of bombing and shelling in war-torn Syria began to use simple air beds – inflatable mattresses – to help lift rubble gently so as not to injure anyone trapped beneath.   In collaboration with Field Ready they then developed an airbag that could be made with readily accessible local materials and tools and which could be deployed for a tenth of the cost of purchasing a purpose-built device. 

Knowledge integration – the power of collective intelligence isn’t just mobilising many minds via crowdsourcing ideas. It’s also about different minds – enhancing diversity, bringing and combining different knowledge sets – cross function, cross boundary, cross discipline.  The idea of bridging across different worlds is also not new – it was something Thomas Edison deployed to great effect in his invention factory, linking different worlds of knowledge and expertise to focus on key problems

A good  example of such an approach in the humanitarian space is the Aravind Eye Care system which originated with a retired eye surgeon in India.  He was concerned with dealing with a different kind of crisis – the chronic problems of the poor unable to afford healthcare, in his case the relatively straightforward surgery needed to treat cataracts,  His challenge was to find a low cost repeatable and safe solution – and he found one, not in the medical world in which he’d spent his career but underneath McDonald’s’ golden arches.  By borrowing and repurposing techniques from fast food and mass production of cars he was able to cut the cost of such operations by a factor of ten whilst maintaining an enviable safety record.  Today around 12 million people can see who would otherwise have gone blind because of untreated cataracts

Intrepid exploration – you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs – and you can’t innovate without accepting that failure is part of the story.  That, of course, is the wisdom behind the current interest in ‘agile’ approaches, looking for fast learning cycles to drive innovation.  And it’s absolutely true in crisis conditions – as we’ve seen, there’s a need for fast improvisation and experiment.  But this can pose a challenge for larger organizations having to suddenly behave like entrepreneurs.  Because entrepreneurs break the rules.  That’s their role, as iconoclasts, breaking through to something new.   For their parent organization this is often in direct opposition to key principles of stability, control and responsibility. 

This is certainly true in the humanitarian space which is tightly ‘regulated’ by concerns around ethics and accountability, but the same is true in many other sectors – healthcare, food supply, banking and insurance.  What’s needed is local level experimentation within some kind of framework  in which it is OK to bend the rules, suspending them, allowing space for experimentation and even failure but under controlled or at least quarantined conditions.

These approaches to innovation under crisis conditions aren’t new.  Nor are they confined to the humanitarian sector – indeed we’re seeing plenty of them emerging as we try to deal with the Covid-19 crisis.  Crowdsourcing solutions for ventilators and PPE, improvising and repurposing existing equipment, bringing together different groups of people into task forces and challenge response teams.  And bending or suspending the ‘normal’ rules until we can get back to some kind of stability.

They demonstrate well our ability to behave like the legendary Phoenix, rising from the ashes of disaster with new ways forward.  We can and do respond well in times of crisis not least by altering our innovation approaches.,  But that begs a key question is whether we aim for some degree of carryover, maintaining a capability for this different approach to innovation – or will we be simply putting it all back in the cupboard again. 

If we’re serious about preserving some of our crisis capacity then we need a number of components.  First of all the willingness to accept that crisis will happen and so we should prepare for it by rehearsing our responses under non-crisis conditions.  We could improve our ability to see crisis coming or at least to get early warning through creating or linking to some kind of observatory.  And we could build a laboratory capability, one in which it is Ok to think unthinkable things, experiment under controlled conditions, push the envelope – and occasionally (but safely) break things.

As the current crisis has shown us we might need to turn our organizational tanker suddenly.  So it might help if have early warning radar, some form of agility boosters to improve manoeuvrability, and have a crisis crew able to (temporarily) steer the ship through turbulent waters back to a calmer sea.

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