Innovating in the Wake of a Pandemic

“Learning and innovation go hand in hand, 
the arrogance of success is to believe 
that what we did yesterday 
will be sufficient for tomorrow.” 
William Pollard 

When faced with overwhelming change in your work and personal lives, where do you turn for some new and healthy perspective? What about a group of people who were spending most days before the current crisis thinking about innovation and change? Recently, we hosted a Generous Mind Conversation with innovation practitioners from a wide swath of nonprofit organizations. The participants ranged from higher education, mission agency staff, microfinance, sports associations, Bible engagement organizations and mission mobilizers. 

In the wide-ranging conversation, we spoke about crucial attitudes that can help us thrive in these challenging times, proactive approaches to addressing what comes our way and creative ways to take action as we innovate and imagine what is next. This article represents the group’s thinking and, when possible, you will see initials in parenthesis after key ideas shared by specific participants (The full names and roles of each participant are at the bottom of the article). 

Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash
What good can come in the waves that swell behind a pandemic? As we see the tragedy and destruction that this ghost ship is leaving in its wake, we turn to a wide variety of analogies to make sense of what we are experiencing. When we have an invisible foe, like a virus, it’s hard to visualize the struggle we are in without them. So, we look to these word pictures as we grapple with the global implications of the crisis and try to imagine how we will respond. 

Those looking at organizational change might grab on to Andy Crouch’s blizzard, winter and little ice age picture of how the duration and intensity might affect our organizations. Still others have focused on the virus’s spread and what it might take to flatten it through images of the infection curve shared by the WHO, the CDC and other healthcare experts. And others look to the economists who are describing the economic recovery using models such as “V, U, W or L-shaped" rebounds.  

All these are good and helpful tools, but underneath each of them lies some core attitudes, approaches and actions that are key to our ability to innovate today, tomorrow and in a yet-unimaginable future.  

Crucial Attitudes Necessary to Innovate in Crisis 
Before we respond with innovative solutions, we must know what it means to “be” in a crisis. If we recognize that the role of lament, as N.T. Wright so aptly describes, is a fundamental way to embrace our sense of grief in what we have lost, then we have to also recognize that it becomes the central way for us to connect deeply to others. (JB) We must be honest about what the crisis has cost us in lives, livelihoods and loss if we are to really understand those around us and ideate together.  

But more than understanding, grief is the pathway to acceptance of our present situation and a willingness to consider a new future. (MT) It may be that our ability to be content with the limitations we presently are facing in lockdown and with canceled plans allow us to think deeply, pray intentionally and anticipate a future harvest that God will surely bring. (JS) 

Being out of control requires us to lean into our curiosity and creativity; knowing that many times other people (leaders, governments, medical professionals, etc.) are making decisions that will affect our plans and we will have to duck and pivot as decisions are made beyond our control. (MB)  

In all of our efforts to have empathy, contentment and curiosity, it will take gratitude and joy to stay the course as Ruth Haley Barton recently shared, “Even in these difficult days, we all have occasions for gratitude each and every day and we can create space to practice thanksgiving.  Gratitude is a powerful energy in the spiritual life and God knows it will take as much of that as we can find to get us through. And mostly it will be the simple things—that you like your spouse and realize there’s no one else you’d rather shelter in place with.” (PB) 

Proactive Approaches to Innovation in Crisis 
Once our attitudes about the crisis are aligned with God’s heart, we have to select the approaches we will take to our innovation work in the crisis. One reality is that a crisis allows us to step back to purpose. (PB) As Andy Crouch’s article says, our “Why” and “Who” don’t change but our “What” and “How” most certainly will. The crisis allows us to refocus and make sure there hasn’t been mission drift in our "Why.”  

While the “Who” won’t fundamentally change, we can learn a lot about those we serve in a crisis. By being very attentive to who shows up when things are hard (KC), we can glean critical information about our audience and what their needs are. It is very possible that we have made assumptions in the good times about why people engage with us that need to be challenged and rethought. It is also important for us to remember that our “Who” do not live in isolation. A student might want to come back to university but if their parents or friends have concerns it may keep them away. (RB) 

As we step back to purpose and refine our understanding of our audience, we also need to evaluate our approach to change overall. Martin Wolf recently said, “History accelerates in crises. This pandemic may not itself transform the world, but it can accelerate changes already under way." This makes the case that as innovators, the changes that are now accelerating should have already been on our radar. The fact that so many have been caught off guard illustrates that we tend to have a reactive approach rather than an adaptive one. (GC) The crisis exposes the truth that William Bridges describes so well, "One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time."  

Real leadership is attuned to the need to adapt and seeks out areas that are changing before a crisis hits. The challenge for many who were not in that posture before the pandemic is to modify our approach now and take on adaptive approaches to your work. (GC) This will require a willingness for current leaders to reach beyond ourselves. First, we must realize that we can’t change quick enough if we do it alone. (RB) Secondly, leaders need to be harnessing the creativity of younger leaders who may see opportunities in new ways and have the energy and courage to respond aggressively. (TH) 

Finally, our approach must include creating space for innovation in these hectic times. Change doesn’t happen without margin to pray, think, discuss and experiment. (MT) Without space to be creative we only listen to agree rather than listening to understand. If we take a “Yes and” approach we can move beyond being victims of the barriers we face and seek out new solutions to the challenges all around us. (MB)  

Taking Action to Advance Innovation in a Crisis 
Right attitudes and effective approaches should then allow us to take action that leads to innovation. Because of the lockdowns globally, the idea of “essential and nonessential workers” has been mainstreamed. This has caused a crisis on both sides. Those that are essential feel they must put themselves in harm’s way or lose their jobs. Those that are nonessential feel their work is undervalued and are in danger of financial ruin. This crisis is shining a glaring light on what people think is important and that insight should drive our innovation. Are our programs, products and services creating value that people deem essential or are we simply seen as ‘nice to have around’? (KC) Understanding how “essential and nonessential” is changing in our world will allow us to decide what we need to stop doing and will open up ideas for new things to start. (JS) 

As work, meetings and trainings have quickly gone virtual, there is an opportunity to innovate and reimagine whole industries once the crisis is over. The values and assumptions used in this reimagining process are up for grabs. For instance, as we rethink conferences, we have the chance to bring greater equity between attendees from around the world of different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. (TH) We can also install iterative and agile approaches into industries that had not adopted those approaches before the crisis. (MB) This has the potential to make industries like transportation, commercial real estate and event planning much more responsive to change. The same is true in the nonprofit space where some organizations have struggled to change fast enough and now are having to change simply to survive.  

Finally, this crisis will likely mainstream innovation as a professional practice in the nonprofit sector. Senior leaders are starting to realize that the skill sets of innovators are core to the success of their efforts. (JB) This means that innovators need to be ready to apply the tools of their trade at a higher level of visibility in the organization and to make sure their offerings are ready for prime time. The greater dependence on innovation will allow innovators more political capital and resources (human and financial) to ply their trade for the good of the movements they belong to.  

Take the Next Right Step 
People are craving tangible solutions to reduce the uncertainty and show that there is a way forward out of this crisis. This is the moment for innovators to shine! That newly awoken desire means that organizations and stakeholders will be more open to trying new things if they think those initiatives will resolve the crisis and clarify the path forward. This is a key moment that innovators in mission can step up and lead. If innovators invest in having the right attitude about their work, developing solid approaches and taking courageous action, the crisis will be remembered as a moment that accelerated Kingdom work in dramatic ways. 

What is your next right step towards that opportunity for Kingdom service in the wake of a pandemic? 

Generous Mind Conversation Participants: