by Stacy Collett

6 tips for innovating through a crisis

Apr 14, 2020
InnovationIT Leadership

Whether innovating for survival or planning for a post-pandemic comeback, CIOs may find conditions ripe to challenge the status quo, remove barriers and make change

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Credit: patpitchaya / Getty Images

For the past five years, Marquette University’s faculty and administrators have had many serious conversations about how to take the classroom online. Marquette has been offering some online learning opportunities for several years, but progress was incremental at best. They lamented that such a major undertaking would take years to implement on a large scale.

It took one swift-moving pandemic to overcome any reluctance. In one week, the decision was made to take the entire university from providing predominantly in-person, lecture-based education to virtual education overnight.

“The technology was already there, but no one was willing to overcome the hurdles there would be,” says Chuck Swoboda, innovator-in-residence at Marquette University and a board trustee until 2017. It might not be perfect at first, he says, but “because the only alternative is canceling classes altogether — and temporarily going out of business — the university will figure it out. In the end, they’ll make more progress in the next two months than they have made in 10 years.”

A crisis creates enormous problems, not to mention a lot of fear and uncertainty, but a crisis can also remove boundaries normally part of business and allow for innovation, Swoboda says.

History provides many examples. During the Great Depression, GM and Chrysler survived thanks to their understanding of how to adjust to their new realities and their ability to look for advantage. For instance, GM expanded aggressively into the low-priced car market by shifting production from its high-end brands to its high-volume discount brand Chevrolet. The company also used the same engine and parts across different brands to further reduce inventories and create flexible capacity.

Telemedicine is another example. The coronavirus pandemic is pushing telemedicine into the mainstream, testing its ability to keep up with soaring demand and forcing innovation on the fly.

Before the outbreak, telemedicine struggled to take hold in part because of government regulations and a lack of interest from patients and companies. Now hospitals, clinics and medical groups are scrambling to connect with telemedicine companies and tech providers to get online medical consultations up and running on a large scale.

Not all organizations are innovating for survival at the moment, but many CIOs can take advantage of a break in the status quo to shift the organization to a mindset of innovation.

Just a few weeks ago, most organizations were in Phase One of the crisis, just learning to lead as the situation rapidly evolved, says Niamh O’Keeffe, a leadership advisor and author of Future Shaper: How Leaders Can Take Charge in an Uncertain World. Phase Two involved learning what mistakes leaders were making and trying to fix them. Now we are entering Phase Three, she says, “where there is an opportunity to maybe rewrite some of the rules. When this is all finished, what is going to be the ‘next normal?’”

At its most useful, “a crisis provides a license to ignore the status quo and do something better,” Swoboda says. CIOs may be able to find a silver lining with these innovation accelerators that a crisis creates.

Make the most of the new risk-reward dynamic

Traditionally, CIOs are hesitant to try anything that hasn’t been fully vetted. But in a crisis the old way doesn’t work, Swoboda says. When the alternative is shutting down the business, the organization has nothing to lose. “So when you change that risk-reward dynamic they’re not afraid of failure anymore because the system is already failing,” he says.

In Marquette’s case, there were real and valid concerns about moving lecture’s online and creating a virtual classroom. “The shift to all online courses is a significant undertaking filled with risk, but this crisis has demonstrated the incredible amount of change that people can process in a short time when they don’t have any other options,” says Swoboda, who is now president of Cape Point Advisors. “It has taken incredible effort from everyone involved across the university.”

At mortgage servicing firm NorthMarq in Minneapolis, CIO Dan Ritch suddenly had to enable 500 employees to work from home on infrastructure that was set up for only 165 remote users. In three weeks, the firm put $150,000 of core infrastructure in place, extended its Citrix environment, added a new Citrix VPN environment, and acquired 50-plus laptops for remote users, a capital investment that was planned to take place over 18 months.

“From a CIO perspective, it’s easier to sell the COO on a major business system that is impacting the customer than infrastructure in the back office that nobody sees,” Ritch says, “but we’ve been able to put a sense of urgency into the infrastructure investment to enable our work-from-home” directive.

CIOs should also accept that fast-track projects won’t work exactly right in the beginning, Swoboda says. But in a crisis situation, “people are not expecting it to” be perfect, he adds.

Innovate one week or month at a time

With so much pandemic uncertainty, the business outlook is changing rapidly. So it’s important to iterate in small cycles, perhaps weekly, to see what can be improved today, says Melanie Parish, author of The Experimental Leader: Be a New Kind of Boss to Cultivate an Organization of Innovators, and a leadership coach who works with Fortune 500 companies. “Take an agile approach with a team — little prototypes, not big-budget spends right now, but what can they do for free today to improve things for tomorrow. Then figure out how we can have that short cycle happen over and over again.”

Small-cycle innovation also serves a dual role of giving nervous employees meaningful work in uncertain times. “It’s the best things you can provide your team right now,” she says.

Focus on one goal without distractions

CIOs face a constant battle between conflicting priorities on a normal day, but in this moment, they have an opportunity to reprioritize without apology. “[A crisis] gives you an incredible ability to re-focus resources,” Swoboda says. “If you can focus more of your IT organization on one thing, there’s greater chance of getting it done.”

Decentralize decision-making to local teams or regional IT leaders

Leaders often make the mistake of thinking that there is a rulebook for crises and that they can control the situation, O’Keeffe says, but in reality, a crisis requires “leadership in the moment” skills.

“Appoint someone as key response coordinator, and then decentralize the innovating and decision-making to local teams or regional leaders,” O’Keeffe says. “They understand their communities better. The CIO and CEO can set up refreshed objectives” as situations change, “but delegate decision-making to those who can react faster.”

Think strategic intent rather than strategic plan

Strategic plans for innovation are too long-term in a crisis. Strategic intent works best under pressure, Parish says. “Pick a timeline and help people see where you’re headed rather than try to plan it out.” Otherwise, the plan could fall apart when something changes on the ground.  “Give people room to pivot as they do they work.”


Communicate about innovation progress more often than average during a crisis, O’Keeffe says. “Daily briefings are very good, even if you don’t feel that anything is new. If you cancel a scheduled briefing, that can be quite panicky for people. Have your briefing even if there’s nothing new to report.”

At NorthMarq, the CEO gives weekly updates to set the tone for the organization, and IT dovetails onto that message with weekly updates, with smaller groups meeting to commiserate if needed. The week ends with a Social-Distancing Social videoconference where employees bring their own beverage and unwind. “I think our collaboration … speaks to our culture and respect for our teammates,” Ritch says.

Months or years from now, when the ‘next normal’ has been established, Swoboda expects the innovations achieved during this crisis will have long-lasting effects on organizations. “We’re going to see the adoption of new tech practices at a much faster rate than we would’ve seen otherwise,” he says.

“CIOs, this is your moment to go for it,” Swoboda says. “Try and take tech or a new process approach to where there were organizational barriers. This is a moment to change organizational and people dynamics to get them to embrace something new.”