The transformer, the steam turbine, and incandescent light were all created during the Long Depression in the late 19th century. The photocopier, electric razor, and supermarkets were products of the Great Depression. Google (arguably) rose to prominence from the ashes of the dot com bubble—right around the time Steve Jobs was busy resurrecting Apple with innovations that have since changed the world.
In much the same way that constraints breed creativity in artists, crises can usher in waves of innovation by introducing, however temporarily, a bit of tunnel vision. During crises, survival becomes the only goal. Extraneous pursuits are mostly abandoned as all available resources are redirected to those that increase chances of survival.
That survival instinct can be powerful, if harnessed. As American Express CEO stated during the Great Recession, "A difficult economic environment argues for the need to innovate more, not to pull back."
Of course, innovation doesn't just happen. The ground must be fertile, and the seeds must have been planted. Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) software like Selerant’s Devex lays the groundwork for innovation-as-process, as one PM for a multinational chocolatier can attest.
A recipe for inefficiency
Let’s look at an example from one of Selerant’s customers.
Innovation at a leading global chocolatier used to be a cumbersome, largely manual process. New project proposals were discussed at a dedicated monthly meeting. If the proposal was accepted, a brief was created for R&D and for the Product Lifecycle Management team. The project was then given its own an Excel database.
The process had its strengths, but they were outweighed by its inefficiencies. There was no single source of truth, which meant there was no standardized process or structure. There was no formalized review or reporting, and no visibility into workloads, which meant re-assigning workloads couldn't be handled efficiently.
The lack of structure meant anyone could circumvent the entire process, which led to safety and Q&A issues. As the PM stated, “Everybody had a good idea of their siloed part of the process but there was no visibility or transparency into the overall process.”
If innovation depends on connecting ideas, a process dominated by silos and a lack of transparency is precisely how innovation dies.
Creating space for innovation
Once the chocolate company adopted Selerant's PLM solution, Devex, everything changed. Information was no longer siloed, a there was never a question as to where information could be found: it was all—from project proposals to item steps—in Devex. Workflows and briefs were consistent, automated notifications kept projects on track, and the increased transparency led to stronger cross-functional accountability.
Perhaps most importantly, key deliverables were being completed faster, and productivity soared. In short, the PM stated, “We can execute the right tasks, at the right time, in the right order.”
To innovate during crises, focus on process
Innovation doesn't simply happen the moment crises hit, but crises do have a way of whittling things down to the bare essentials. If that whittling down reveals data silos and inefficient processes, innovation will suffer.
But if a crisis reveals a system that allocates resources efficiently, provides visibility and transparency, and automates key processes to free up resources, innovation becomes a matter of habit.