Doing good with innovation – on experimentation and risk during the pandemic

In the second half of one of the recent episodes of the podcast 99% Invisible called “Masking for a friend”, the host Roman Mars talks about the “great manufacturing pivot of 2020” – the first half deals with the cultural differences of mask-wearing in Asia and the western countries and is worthwhile to listen to as well, but the part I want to talk about today starts around the 26 min mark. They interview a couple of manufacturing companies that quickly turned their plants around to produce things needed in the pandemic, like masks, face shields, gowns, even ventilators. It’s quite inspirational!

Besides providing impressive insights into the minds of truly innovative, creative people and their problem solving capabilities, the interviews also show how quickly we can do things that – before the pandemic hit – would have taken weeks or months to accomplish. The underlying theme of all the interviews seems to be “learning as we go”, which I interpret as experimentation. There seems to be a high willingness to try things out, to tinker, to make it work, that enabled these companies to rapidly respond to the shifting needs of society.

I am not involved with any of these companies, but from the outside, it seems that the higher threat level (because, you know, pandemic) also increases the willingness to take a risk. I would have guessed that the normal, human reaction to increased threat and fear would have been to go into survival mode (I like this model by John Kotter) which is not known to increase creativity. There seems to be something special about these companies that enables them to get into a more creative mindset in the face of a pandemic. SIT would probably have a field day with this, because whatever factors are at work here, these stories definitely seem like prime examples of the Closed World technique. Making something new, using only what you have! One of their mantras is that constraints foster innovation, so I can definitely see that once you get into a more creative mindset (and forget about the pandemic for a second), this situation can push creative thinking. But I am still having a hard time imagining how they managed to get there. Maybe my assumption is wrong and many people were not that afraid at the time, but even then, there are some companies putting out pandemic-related products in record time, and others that… do not. Hopefully, there will be research on this in the future, I would love to know more about the differentiating factors at work here.