How businesses can fast-track innovation to help during a crisis

Businesses around the world are looking for ways to help in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, while continuing to sell products and services and keep people employed. From the C-suite to managers to employees at all levels, great ideas are popping up. But how can they be turned into reality as quickly as possible?

I have some experience on this front. When Hurricane Katrina struck the U.S. Gulf Coast in 2005, I was with the advertising and marketing agency Saatchi & Saatchi. My team and I were sitting in a bar with the brand team for Tide, one of our biggest clients. We got to talking about how we’d love to create something to help. Pens came out, and together we scribbled on the back of a napkin. Two weeks later, our idea came to fruition: Loads of Hope, trucks filled with working washing machines and dryers. People struggling in the aftermath could drop off their dirty clothes, and we would clean and fold them. These mobile laundromats continue to be deployed to afflicted areas today, and have helped tens of thousands of families.

Early during the COVID-19 pandemic, a contact in Asia and I got to talking about how kids would need washable masks for school. Within a few weeks, we had Crayola on board, and the SchoolMaskPack program was launched. Families can buy a set of five color-coded kid-sized masks, one for each day of the school week, which can be washed and reused. Demand has been so great that the manufacturer recently had to expand operations to multiple countries.

In both these cases, we were able to move very quickly because we had three crucial ingredients for fast-tracking new ideas.

Innovation as a mission

There’s a big difference between supporting innovation and making it an institutional imperative. Crossing this divide starts with a mindset that business leaders must instill in their organizations: Innovating is a mission, not just a nice idea. It’s something all employees should be working on, in some way, at all times. (As Barry Jaruzelski, Robert Chwalik, and Brad Goehle noted in these pages in their article on top innovators, “Apple’s innovation mind-set is thoroughly integrated in the mission as well as the organization of the company.” CEO Tim Cook describes the company as “a group of people who are trying to change the world for the better.”)

An emergency is a great time to walk the walk. Invite everyone to immediately contribute ideas and have their voices heard. This is what happened with Loads of Hope. The group of us at the table in that bar included people at all levels, from an assistant brand manager at Tide to its brand director, and from a junior account executive of our firm to me, the executive vice president. We were all tossing out ideas, regardless of our place in the institutional hierarchy.

As the concept started to take shape, we all helped refine it. We also knew this conversation wasn’t just theoretical, because the brand was serious about its mission.

Unrealistic timelines

“Unrealistic” timelines usually get a bad rap. But in the midst of an emergency, when it comes to stepping up the pace of innovation, they can be useful. Setting what seem to be impossible deadlines (and understanding the challenges in meeting them) can unleash positive energy and push people to think in new ways. For Loads of Hope, the Tide team needed to find a partner who could get trucks outfitted with washers and dryers. The process for selecting a partner, which could take months in any organization, had to happen virtually overnight. Fortunately, the brand’s leadership team was committed and set aside all the usual steps so the project could happen.

With SchoolMaskPack, my partner and I built in a 24-hour work schedule from the outset. Since we had personnel in various time zones, tasks could be handed off in a “follow the sun” business model. (After all, at 6:00 pm in Sydney, it is 9:00 am in London.) Crayola had people available at any hour to instantly approve or weigh in on decisions, with no need for delays or red tape.

Compressed time frames can make work even more creative. Researchers Teresa Amabile, Constance Noonan Hadley, and Steven J. Kramer explained in the Harvard Business Review that when certain conditions are in place, “people can and do come up with ingenious solutions under desperately short time frames.” These conditions include a sense of focus, in which people concentrate on the activity “for a significant portion of the day”; limited collaboration, with people working more in pairs and less in groups; and a sense of being on a “mission.”

Excessive support

The third crucial ingredient is deep institutional buy-in. Working on unrealistic timelines requires a lot of financial, emotional, and logistical support. Tide was willing to give Loads of Hope all the resources it needed: employee time away from other projects, funds, and more.

To fast-track innovation amid COVID-19, businesses can make ‘unrealistic’ deadlines work. Chris Foster explains how.

With SchoolMaskPack, our manufacturing company, Supara Group, was willing to retrofit all of its operations to begin creating the masks. I contributed time and resources — not just my own time, but also that of my team at FosterEquity. We had no idea whether the project would succeed. But if it were going to have a shot, we would need to go overboard to give it all the support we could.

And of course, there is a financial cost to this support. Employees who spearhead a rapid-response project might come up with a plan, but note that it costs $3 million more than originally planned or would require doubling the size of a team. In such instances, leaders should hear them out, help brainstorm ways to accomplish the same task with fewer resources, and — crucially — go to bat to get them what they need.

These elements don’t have to be limited to individual projects. They can help businesses transform their entire operations. I recently joined with a group of peers to create The Next Practice, a marketing services and data analytics online-only collective that follows a 24-hour model. It’s a business that would never have been created before COVID-19, when brick-and-mortar offices were still considered essential in our industry. We saw the urgency, rushed into action, and threw our resources into it.

As awful as this pandemic is, it can be an opportunity for innovation to flourish. Making big ideas happen at this time can certainly be exhausting, but the rewards are bigger. And the payoff — in all its forms — can come on a shortened timeline as well.