Innovation: Innovation comes at nexus of calculation, compassion

Unprecedented. Extraordinary. Global game-changer. A black swan event.

We’re tired of hearing these words to describe the pandemic sweeping across the world and leaving swaths of heartbroken families and crippled businesses in its wake. We’re casting about for what can be done in response, on both an individual scale and across industries. And more often than not, we reach for the word innovation as a pathway out of this crisis.

Crisis creates the chaos that innovation thrives in. We’ve seen it countless times throughout our history. There’s a space inside the miasma that a few visionaries can see into and pull out magic. In the pressure cooker of immediate massive need, ingenuity can yield innovative results.

Many companies may feel they’ve been innovating over the last several months, but in all likelihood they have been adapting, or possibly even evolving. Switching to remote working isn’t really innovation. The technology has been available for years, though certainly not as broadly deployed as it now has to be. And switching up your product line or business model is more pivot than innovation.

Successful pivoting by companies came as we started to solve the problems this crisis poses as it developed. Savvy businesses turned quickly to fill gaps. Distilleries shifted from tasty elixirs to alcohol-based hand sanitizers. A local fashion company that began producing masks and scrub caps for hospital workers short on PPE, shifted to mass production of masks for general public use two months ahead of national chains. Those pivots have served them, and their communities, well.

We’ve also seen rapid response innovation emerge from the crisis. Amid worries about ventilator shortages, enterprising manufacturers adapted scuba gear into quick turn, life-saving devices. And in the past two months, new types of ventilators have been designed, 3D printed, and put to use across the country.

However, pivots and rapid response innovation won’t provide us with the kind of wholesale shifts we’ll need to navigate long-term effects of COVID-19.

Long term change driven by innovation will come when we begin to think even farther down the road to what our new way of life is going to be. What will people need to navigate new requirements and societal changes the virus has brought? What challenges will need to be solved? And most importantly, how can we do it in a way that serves to better us and our work?

There’s the rub. We have a wide-open opportunity to change long entrenched systems and behaviors across a huge swath of society. And some companies will fall on the side of making the fast dollar that works in the short term. And some will fall on the side of wholesale change, ripping out old systems and creating new ones. One is a flash in the pan and the other could take a decade.

The economy won’t be repaired with either.

We’ll need companies that can see into the future with clarity about how we’ll need to change, and what shifts we can make for the betterment of our workforce and economy at the same time.

What kind of innovation could we have if companies help us successfully navigate a delicate balance between calculation and compassion? What would improve if we found new models, systems, and products that both made a profit and positive change to how we do business?

The balance between calculation and compassion is a conversation I’ve been having often with business owners these past few months. How you balance between keeping the business alive and keeping employees. How you make a profit while taking care of people and helping them thrive. How to revive the economy while making systemic shifts to make it more resilient to future potential crises.

Companies have a tremendous opportunity to use this time of disruption to create something new, to be truly innovative. But navigating the narrow path between calculation and compassion and coming out the other side with products and services that both serve our community and provide profits won’t be easy. But it’s going to be necessary.

Jana Sanchez is the executive director of LaunchNo.CO, a nonprofit dedicated to helping companies form, grow, and stay in Northern Colorado. She can be reached at jana@launchno.co.