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Why crisis can provoke ideas and innovation

No crisis is a good thing. But how leaders and organizations react matters. Innovation and ideas can be birthed from crisis and chaos.

4 min read


Why crisis can provoke ideas and innovation


Many companies and thousands of researchers are working on vaccines for COVID-19. Never before in the history of medical science have so many different teams, many from competing companies, come together to work for a common cause.

And academics from the University of Chicago Booth School have joined in. Not in the quest for a new therapy or a vaccine, but to present information to businesses about what they should be looking for in the future.

The lead editorial in the summer 2020 issue of Chicago Booth Review set up the proposition. “In normal times, academic research and publishing are deliberately slow.” The point is not speed; it’s rigor and accuracy. “But COVID-19 has changed a lot, including the pace of research,” the editorial added.

In short, things are changing so fast — in health care, in economics, with regard to racial justice — that leaders need information they can use now. Ideas presented cover the gamut of the faculty of the Booth school. For example, there were articles on economics, policy, markets, business and health care.

Of note to me are the articles on the societal impact of the pandemic on the workplace, the value of physical connections, and the impact of technology on well-being.

All of this reminds me of another time: the first 100 days of the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. With the country prostrate, Roosevelt mobilized all resources from business and the social sector to get people back to work. The operative mantra of this time was, “Try this; try that, but by God, try something.”

Roosevelt initiated what was called the Alphabet Agencies, nicknamed for their acronyms. Some things like the Works Project Administration, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the Civilian Conservation Corps had a lasting impact on our infrastructure. Other projects have faded from memory.

It was not till the mobilization for World War II that put Americans back to work — men into the armed services, women into jobs formerly held by men. Yet many people felt in their hearts that with Roosevelt, things would get better. Roosevelt, they felt, was listening to them.

What to do now

And that’s what business leaders need to do: listen to their employees. None of us know what will come next, but we know we must do something. Crisis provokes innovation. The challenge is for management to enable it to make it safe to try and try again. Here are a few action steps:

  • Create virtual town halls where employees are encouraged to come with ideas about a given issue.
  • Choose suggestions to be explored by individuals and teams.
  • Execute the best ideas and keep people apprised of their progress.
  • Follow up and evaluate successes.

Then rinse and repeat. Listen. Suggest. Execute. Evaluate. It is not rocket science, but it is a way to get employees engaged with the issues of the day and give them a voice in solving them.

One thing is for sure: The new normal will not be the old normal. And while we can mourn the loss of the old familiar, we can take heart that when people put their hearts and minds into something greater than themselves, good things can happen.

Nearly two millennia ago, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius posited, “Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”

The editorial in the Chicago Booth Review concludes: “The research is being done quickly because the findings are needed now. There are more questions than answers, but there are data — and people who know how to interpret them and learn the lessons.”

The answers to the future lie within the talents of the people working hard today.


John Baldoni is an internationally recognized keynote speaker and executive coach who provides his services via video conference. In 2018, Trust Across America honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in Trust. Also in 2018, named Baldoni a Top 100 Leadership Speaker. In 2020, Global Gurus once again named Baldoni a top 30 global leadership expert, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2014, named Baldoni to its list of top 50 leadership experts. Baldoni is the author of 14 books, including “MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership” and his newest, “GRACE: A Leader’s Guide to a Better Us.” You can find his tips on leading in a crisis here.

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