Throughout history, the most innovative minds have shown us that great things can emerge during times of hardship. When an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague forced London’s theaters to close, it gave William Shakespeare the time to write some of his most renowned works. Johann Sebastian Bach composed his cantatas as several waves of pandemics decimated cities across Europe.
For our think-tank, innovation is non-negotiable — our sine qua non — and a quality that we believe in to our core, even in the middle of a crisis. When the pandemic hit, it forced us to slow down, step back, and take a fresh look at how we work and where we could improve, but we never sacrificed innovation. In fact, we made it the focal point of our pivot and not only survived the crisis, but grew despite it.
When a situation gets out of hand, my first response is often to slow down. Imagine putting a pot of soup on the stove at a slow simmer. The soup can be maintained safely in that one step for a while as you come up with the next one.“Before the pandemic hit, business moved at a very fast pace, so when my chief of strategy laid out the steps so we can help in stopping community spread, I stared at her in shock: “What do you mean, people won’t come in to work?” But by March 2020, everybody was hunkering down.
When you go from flight-hopping from Boston to Barcelona to everyone just being stuck at home, slowing down is the first natural step, but it allows for much more. Business needed to be done in a new way, which required us to pivot, but my team would never be able to do that and stay innovative if we kept our same grueling pace. So we shut down at 3:00 PM on Fridays and told everyone that weekend work was no longer allowed. We scheduled regular check-ins and made sure everyone was okay. Slowing down gave us the time we needed to find the best solutions to move forward.
Keep People Happy
Without slowing down, we never would have been able to keep up the shop’s G.D.H. – gross domestic happiness – during a crisis. Before the pandemic, we hosted workshops, held gatherings and social events, but to retain that same sense of community over Zoom required innovation. I reinvigorated my approach with a massive push to keep people engaged, started sending a surprise tiramisu late in the evening or Indian dinner, a coffee machine, or some French sparkling water – gestures of support to let my teammates know that I genuinely cared.
We still worked hard and kept crazy hours, but always maintained our happiness quotient. We started sending care packages of snacks to clients on Friday ahead of our Monday competitive simulations so parents could give their kids a treat and keep them out of their hair while we met online. In one meeting, 60 people mentioned how much their kids loved the snacks, and everyone was able to give their full participation. Helping people stay happy when times are difficult frees up their minds to stay innovative.
As a crisis continues, adjust as necessary to make sure innovation can keep happening. When everything shifted to Zoom, it quickly felt like we were pushing too many daily video calls and designated Wednesdays as “No Zoom” days” to remind us that there are other ways to work. We selected contracts more thoughtfully and only took on new work that was central to our mission, or expanded us into a new growth trajectory. Some limited pro bono work allowed us to keep the shop exciting and feel our pivot was headed toward broader opportunities down the line.
If something bothers you, it probably bothers someone else, and is likely inhibiting their ability to innovate. In 2020, our team members had vacation days, but most were unable to take them because of the pandemic. When we saw this inevitability, we offered to buy their seven vacation days back, even letting them roll five days over to the next year. Never be afraid to make changes that will allow your team to be more innovative because innovation is what drives success.
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Create Something New
When a crisis hits and life has to slow down, take advantage of that time to innovate. In the summer of 2020, smack in the middle of the pandemic, our slowed-down approach gave us the idea to restructure into five pillars – immuno oncology, hematology, medical affairs, solid tumors, and precision medicine – a shift that received broad client support. Slowing down allowed this restructuring to yield major benefits, but outside of the context of a crisis, we may never have gotten there.