Innovation Loves a Crisis

The innovation that saves your behind... emergency innovation.

Posted Apr 30, 2009

In 1970, about 200,000 mi from Earth and in the lonely dark emptiness of space, the number two oxygen tank of Apollo 13 exploded. A fault in the electrical system. A radio transmission by astronaut Lovell, "Houston, we've had a problem," started off the most dramatic demonstration of crisis innovation in the 20th century. Under great hardship - and with limited power, loss of cabin heat and a shortage of potable water - astronauts, flight directors and ground crews raced against time and the odds, to bring them safely home. Considerable ingenuity under extreme pressure was required for the safe return.

One of the major issues they faced in this crisis was a shortage of lithium hydroxide (LiOH), for scrubbing carbon dioxide from the air supply. In the landing module - where the crew was marooned - the internal stock of LiOH canisters would not support the crew until return, and the remainder was stored in the descent stage, out of reach. In a stunning display of raw brain power, the scientists in the ground crew rapidly improvised a way to use a different LiOH canister by drawing air through them with a suit return hose. The astronauts called the jury-rigged device "the mailbox", in what was a stunning demonstration that innovation is amplified during a crisis.

Evolutionary Basis for Innovation

I believe there's an evolutionary reason for the amplification of innovation during crises. There's a term in neurophysiology called plasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to the brain's capacity to modify its organization, pertaining to the acquisition of new skills and learning. Several decades ago, the consensus was that the neocortical areas were immutable after a certain stage of development. However, recent studies determined that environmental changes could alter cognition by modifying neuron connections in adults. What's more, it was determined that stress is the key factor in boosting plasticity, and learning, in the nervous system.

In other words, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. The brain says to itself: "Oh, my survival is at risk, so I'd better start thinking and learning really hard right now." It's only when you have skin in the game that you'll really focus and learn.

This lesson was obviously learned by Jong-Yong Yun, the CEO of Samsung, who is building a culture of perpetual crisis at Samsung Electronics, which has become the worlds largest consumer electronics company. As an innovator, Samsung racked up more patents than Intel, spent an astounding 9% of revenue on R&D, and employs around 27,000 researchers, 40% of its global workforce.

Yun relentlessly admonishes his team that disaster is just around the corner - markets could implode overnight, competitors can catch up, China can grab the electronics commodity market, that success breeds complacency and gives birth to the possibility of failure. The only way to survive is to succeed, to achieve both cost reduction and product innovation.

"Innovation loves a crisis" isn't a saying to Jong-Yong Yun, it's a mantra.

Another example is Nokia. This is because the company had to be innovative to survive, like an elk in the icy winter or a Finnish resistance fighter undercover. The company has reinvented itself four times, first as a manufacturer of boots, then televisions, then computers, and finally mobile phones. As a result of this, the company is very serious about innovation, simply because they realize that their survival depends upon that next killer product line. As a result of this, innovativeness has been written into the DNA of the organization.

31 Flavors of Innovation

Most innovation experts tell you that there are two kinds of innovation, incremental innovation and radical innovation... which are now called "little i" and "Big I" in the innovation biz.

But there's also process vs product innovation. There's white space vs blue ocean innovation. There's disruptive research. Rapid execution. Business model innovation. Service innovation. Sales innovation. Marketing innovation. And at every company, there are probably several different flavors or approaches to innovation, the combination of which defines the very character of that organization.

However, the most interesting flavor of innovation is one without a name. It's the aha! that saves your behind exactly when things start falling apart. It may not be the perfect idea, but rapidly executed, it's the one that saves your bacon. I'd like to give this form of innovation a name... emergency innovation. It's 911 for management, when you tell your go-to team that everything is riding on them.

This is Sparta

Quite frankly, emergency innovation requires nerves of steel. Let's consider humanity's finest example of courage in the face of despair - the Battle of Thermopylae. Maybe you've seen the movie 300? You know, it's the one about the three hundred Spartan warriors who held off the army of King Xerxes of Persian in 480 BC at a narrow pass by the sea. The army of Xerxes was so large - estimated by some scholars to be as large as a million soldiers - his soldiers would drink rivers dry. When his archers let fly, the arrows would block out the sun. To this, a Spartan warrior named Dieneces retorted, "Excellent, then we will be able to fight in the shade." This small band of 300 warriors held off the army of Xerxes long enough to allow Greece the time it needed to marshal the forces necessary to win the larger war.

Now, imagine your company under the pressure of the worst recession in decades (I guess that one doesn't require too much imagination). Sales projections look ugly. Your customers are going under. Another wave of layoffs is imminent. What does the rank and file do? Get scared and demotivated? Dust off the resumes just in case? Start drinking heavily?

Everyone talks about corporate antibodies that resist innovation, but what about corporate white blood cells? The ones that will defend you from your worst dangers? What have you done for them? What programs have you created to allow courage and innovation to rise up? Imagine - what if - your three hundred most courageous employees rose up, and formed a cadre of engineers and product marketers, to say, "we know there's a salary and hiring freeze, but aren't afraid -- we want to help, we want to work nights and weekends, we want to create breakthrough innovations, we want to find new ways to accelerate sales... we want to bring the battle to them!"

What if your three hundred best and brightest said to you, "when the economy hits us this hard, it only makes us want to do is hit back harder!"

Now, wouldn't that moment choke you up, just a little bit?

This is why we say that the core of innovation is courage.

I have slowly learned the truth that the primary ingredient in innovation isn't brains, but guts. As a result, we added motivational exercises to our workshops to help our clients overcome deeply embedded psychological fears  - group exercises like firewalking, walking over broken glass and breaking boards with bare hands. The psycho-emotional breakthrough possible by combining Tony Robbins style firewalking with world class innovation should be breath-taking.

Sure, we maintain the traditional components of innovation consulting, like ideation skills training and collaboration software applications, but it was clear to us that the next level of tenacity, teamwork and creativity can be achieved only by allowing courage to rise and be proven, in a way that unlocks the power of the human mind and the potential of the human spirit. It's the kind of courage that doesn't lose heart when you hear the words, "Houston, we have a problem."

 


[Note: a special thanks to Kirsten Sandberg, who provided the inspiration for this article.]