How to innovate during a crisis

As compassionate beings, I am sure everyone feels the urge to help or contribute during the current global crisis triggered by COVID-19. With so many lives and industries impacted, it becomes overwhelming and confusing to think about whom to help and how to help.

Recently, I have been successful in obtaining a grant from Innovate UK, the UK’s Innovation Agency, in its biggest-ever funding competition that attracted entries from 8600 companies. So, I thought to share my experience as well as the main steps and tricks I used to create a novel idea. It is not an exhaustive list of steps, but I hope it helps some of the bright minds out there who are eager to innovate during these difficult times and help the society.

1. Tap into your emotions

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It is normal to experience strong feelings during a crisis. Transitioning through multiple intense feelings can be exhausting. In a short time, one may feel gratitude towards the front-line workers, angry about PPE shortage, frustrated with government inaction, insecure about job prospects, and worried about loved ones in a different city/country.

The first step is to become aware of these emotions and clarify what is in control and what is not. Channel emotional energy into passion and action that can make a positive difference. Take a piece of paper and write down reasons for: “why do you want to help?”, “why do you want to innovate?”. The answer may be short or long, but it needs to be real to you. Answers to these questions will serve as motivation to persevere through challenges that lie ahead.

2. Identify skills and experience

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The next step is a quick review of your (or team’s/company’s) growth story. Replay past experiences in your head and identify key strengths, weaknesses, skills, and tools. Also, recognize new and transferrable skills or tools that can be learned and adapted. Keep a growth mindset and also list skills you want to acquire or develop.

3. Select a sector, define the problem, and choose customer profile

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A global crisis creates complex economic, financial, social, and political problems. It is impossible to come up with one solution to solve everything. So, it is crucial to focus on generating ideas towards a specific problem and targeted industry/customer. Select a sector/area based on personal interest, passion, and experience, and clearly define a problem to solve. Ask yourself the following questions “By serving which sector can I contribute most effectively?”, “What is the specific problem in that sector that I can solve?”, “Who are my target customers?”.

4. Understand the problem

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Defining the problem is not enough. One needs to understand the problem in detail from different perspectives (technology, customer, business, etc). It is essential to confirm the problem is real and it comes from an informed view, and not based on personal opinion. Research about the problem using different sources like technology blogs, research and journal papers, financial articles, statistical data, and economic columns.

5. Wear bigger shoes

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To solve a complex problem and think about solutions that have a wider impact, slide into bigger shoes. Think at least one or two positions above and ask yourself “how would I approach this problem if I were a CEO of the company or a global leader?”. I also find this technique a good way to keep growing and learning in professional and personal life.

6. Let your ideas flow and sort them later

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When thinking about ideas, do not group them immediately. Let ideas flow as they come. Use a mind map software or, if you are like me, start scribbling thoughts on a paper. Do not worry about any format or structure. Keep recording ideas without judging them. Allow the mind to think freely and let it connect abstract ideas. Only after making an exhaustive list, start structuring or grouping ideas to observe any patterns. 

7. Sleep on it

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Thinking about various ideas and solutions can take days or months, and the additional stress from the crisis can be exhausting. So, do not miss out on your sleep. Good quality sleep (especially Rapid Eye Movement or REM sleep along with the act of dreaming) has an added advantage that stimulates creativity and encourages problem-solving. REM sleep can blend ideas in highly abstract and novel ways. If you want to read more about the benefits of sleep, I highly recommend reading “Why We Sleep” by Matthew Walker.

8. The light bulb moment is often not the final solution

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Finally, the moment of realization arrives when a solution seems feasible. However, don’t jump into celebration mode too soon. Record the idea immediately, and keep improving it every day. The light bulb moment is like finding a raw diamond; it still needs to be polished and shaped before placing it on the crown.

9. Expand the idea

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Till now, some of the above steps focused on narrowing down the skill, sector, and problem. However, once a feasible concept/idea is found, broaden the horizon and see if the current solution can be adapted in different scenarios or sectors with some modifications.

10. Execution, networking, team building, and funding.

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An idea may look brilliant on a piece of paper. However, the idea’s real value is materialized only after it is executed. Start working on the implementation plan as soon as the solution is finalized. Break down the vision into smaller achievable chunks and assemble the right team to execute the plan. Do not hesitate to reach out to your network and ask for guidance or suggestions. Also, look out for potential funding opportunities and competitions.

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