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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.    

Solutions co-created and diffused included:

  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.