Our Finest Hour: Innovation in a Time of Crisis


The COVID-19 pandemic, along with all the havoc it has wrought, has led some organizations to make enormous pivots in how they do things, often in ways and at a speed they never thought possible. How are such quantum leaps possible in times of crisis and what can we learn from that?

I spoke with Dr. Peter Temes, Founder and President of The Institute for Innovation in Large Organizations (ILO), which he launched in 2005 to bring together senior executives leading innovation around the world. The current ILO membership includes AT&T, Kaiser Permanente, NASA, Pfizer, and the University of Alabama, among many others. How are innovation leaders attacking this crisis?

On the one hand, Peter says, pent up demand for innovation in some organizations is finally getting unleashed as the “thumb on the scale” to preserve old ways and hold back change is gone.

On the other hand, the focus is shifting to innovating systems over point solutions. For example, the ability to match resources to needs across complex networks (e.g., ventilators). Resource matching is an underdeveloped capacity in many organizations. This is true on the people’s side of things, too. There are nurses, for example, who could operate ventilation equipment in a public health crisis but have not been trained. Systems to address and anticipate those needs are now top of mind.

So how does innovation at a systems-level happen? Peter points to two enduring best practices. The first is to systematically lower the cost of failure, by incentivizing people to experiment more at lower costs in time and money, but also reputation and brand. A crisis environment, one might suggest, changes those equations dramatically.

The second best practice is to focus more on discovery than prediction. That is, try something, expect that it might fail and if it does treat it as an opportunity to pivot to a different way or even a new concept altogether. In times of overwhelming change, like these, it is impossible to predict what will happen accurately and there is no time to work through the gap between what we predicted and what happened in fact. Organizations are forced to work more like lean startups than they ever could have before to keep up with the pace of change in the environment.

Listen to excerpts from our conversation here for more of Peter’s insights in innovation in extraordinary times.



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