When the coronavirus threat began to emerge in our country in February 2020, India was an importer of Personal Protective Equipments (PPE) but the global spike in cases meant steep prices and drying supplies. Come May 2020, India is the world’s second-largest producer of quality PPEs and has also developed the world’s first reusable PPE suit. This turnaround happened because the Textile Minister took a lead here and exhibited a great sense of ownership by tapping India’s textile behemoths like Indian Technical Textile Association, 3M, Welspun along with numerous other MSMEs.
Even historically, it is often seen that some of the most innovative ideas and solutions took birth in times of crisis. When the SARS virus hit China in the early 2000s, there was underlying paranoia about human contact which led to the rapid rise of a then small e-commerce company called Alibaba. It is now firmly established as a leading retailer in Asia. Likewise, the financial crisis of 2008 led to the rise of Uber and Airbnb as people wanted to save more and were comfortable with sharing assets. Today, we cannot imagine our lives without these services. Hence, it would not be wrong to say that crisis is the new “necessity” in the world of invention.
But what is it that triggers innovation in a time of crisis? Human beings inherently resist to change & often rationalize their actions & thoughts to feel safe. While designing the Resistance to Change Scale, Prof. Shaul Oreg studied the Big Five Model to understand how its five factors have a positive and negative correlation to ‘routine seeking’, ‘emotional reaction’, ‘short-term focus’ and ‘cognitive rigidity’ that are four reliable factors indicating resistance to change. A lot of us don’t like to be shaken out of our comfort zones, however, when faced with a crisis, we operate with a different mindset because we know that the road ahead is impassable, and we need to find a new route in order to survive.
Effective leadership during a prolonged crisis is extremely crucial for an organization and its people. In order to foster a culture of innovation amidst a crisis, it is essential for leaders to understand and ponder upon a few points:
Failing is OK
Elon Musk once said “Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough”. It’s important for leaders to realize that failure is inevitable when one is facing a crisis at hand. In fact, the fear of failure may stop many of our people from taking risks. Hence, it’s important for leaders to create an environment where people feel safe and they are encouraged to challenge and try novel things even if they make mistakes. Embrace and not punish mistakes.
As leaders, it may be a natural reflex for many of us to become the bold and decisive executive who steers the organization ahead during crisis, but it may not be the most preferred way to drive innovation. One cannot expect people to innovate unless they are given freedom. It is imperative that we empower every individual in the organization to make decisions wherever possible because a culture of equality helps thrive culture of innovation. When people feel they are equal stakeholders in the organization and there is a balanced distribution of authority, they are more willing to think and reinvent.
Need for Speed
Steve Jobs said, ‘Fail fast, fail often - failure can bring innovation’. Things change rapidly in a crisis situation and it is important for leaders to react accordingly. Taking too long to create something new, can be a route to failure because if organizations are unable to modify themselves as per the situation, they put themselves at the risk of obsolescence. At the same time, a delay in innovation may give room for competitors to claim the market position. Leaders should take informed decisions in these times and make smart trade-offs if needed.
As human beings, we often emote before we reason. Hence, even though we may wish to respond to the crisis at hand with unshakeable courage and positivity, emotions may sometimes act as a roadblock and derail rational thinking. There may be several challenges which our people may be facing on a personal front and even we, as leaders, may not be averse to them. Hence, it’s important for leaders to understand that empathy is crucial to leading through crisis. The greatest asset that any organization has is its people. The more we make them feel cared for, the more they will care for us and the more they will contribute and innovate.
‘Creativity loves constraints’ - Google has adopted this as a motto and it’s not really untrue. Sometimes there are novel ways and solutions out there, but we need to be nudged out of our comfort zones to find them.