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How the coronavirus crisis has put innovation in the spotlight

Rob Sheffield

Why do crises improve our ability and willingness to collaborate and innovate? And what can innovation practitioners learn from this situation? Experienced trainer and consultant Rob Sheffield shares his thoughts. 

Crises accelerate innovation. Necessity, as they say, really is the mother of invention.

Before the coronavirus crisis, just 1% of hospital appointments were conducted online or over the phone. Now most of them are.

A volunteering app that would probably have taken over a year to produce under normal circumstances signed up over 750,000 volunteers in just over a month.

The ExCel Centre was converted from an exhibition space into an emergency hospital in nine days. And a consortium of different firms including Siemens, Airbus, Ford and Formula 1 worked together to bring a mass-producible ventilator to market in a similar amount of time.

Would any of these things have been considered possible, or even considered at all, in ordinary circumstances? What is it about a crisis that increases our willingness and ability to collaborate and innovate?

We recently caught up with Rob Sheffield - Director of Bluegreen Learning and an experienced facilitator, coach, trainer and consultant - to discuss the relationship between crisis and innovation and what we can learn from this situation.

This situation has put innovation in the spotlight

Problems tend not to be solved until they need to be solved. This isn’t laziness, it’s just human nature. As we’re fond of saying: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Rob says that he’s seen an increase in interest among his clients in developing creative problem-solving skills. He believes this is related to the widespread innovation that we’re seeing all around us.

“I think because we're in such a massive explosion of creativity - incremental creativity and more radical creativity - these skills are getting noticed a bit more. And I think this will make them even more recognisable as a set of needs.”

Uncertainty forces innovation up the agenda. As individuals and organisations, our problem-solving skills come to the fore when we have clear problems to solve.

“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. It's purposeful needs that are driving all of this. It's not like the skills of everyone in the world have suddenly increased. 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.”

Crises create constraints 

As Google says, ‘Innovation loves constraints’. The hardest problems to solve are ones that aren’t properly defined. Or, worse still, that aren’t there at all.

Crises improve our ability to innovate because they bring us into contact with urgent and clear problems that need to be addressed. This not only focuses our attention, but also helps us to set aside differences in order to work together.

“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.”

Context is also important. Different contexts or environments can help us think and behave in radically different ways. This is one of the reasons why ‘innovation labs’ can prove so successful. They take us out of our everyday context and into a new environment in which we’re encouraged to challenge our old behaviours and assumptions.

“Most of us are having to work from our homes and we're having to use technology. We can't do things in a normal way and I think for innovation that’s quite good. 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.”

Surprisingly, adversity can make us more tolerant and compassionate

When we think of our response to adversity, we tend to think of rash or impulsive behaviour. But actually, a degree of adversity can bring people together and make them more tolerant of one another.

Tolerance and empathy are vital for innovation. In order to think freely and creatively, people need to feel protected from criticism or reproach. Fear of failure is often a blocker to innovation.

As we’ve heard many times over the last few weeks: “We’re all in this together”. None of us have ever lived through anything like this. In fact, this may be the first time in human history that the entire world is facing the same challenges and looking for the same solutions.

“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.”

Innovation and problem-solving have been at the heart of our response to this crisis. Once things return to normal, there will be plenty of stories for innovation practitioners to learn from.

In the short term, it might be heartening to remember that while the situation we’re facing is uncertain and unprecedented, our collective response has demonstrated what we can achieve when we work together.

Thanks to Rob for taking the time to chat. For more advice from Rob on how you can overcome common innovation challenges, check out our Innovation Blockers report.

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