What can you change in an economic free fall?
Every day at 5 am Natalie Freel runs. It does not matter if it rains, if she gets out of bed and does not feel like moving or if she is the only person on the 5 mile track. In fact, she likes her run solitary. Being alone forces her to rely on her strength to get her through an activity which 2 years before she never would have been able to do. “I must be the slowest runner on the planet,” she laughs, “but I really like it considering that I was in such bad shape, I could barely take two steps without passing out.”
Natalie was once 40 pounds overweight. A change in lifestyle, diet and how she approached her work allowed her to become a better manager of her health. Adversity, she found, was her best teacher. And after years of feeling sorry for herself and living inside a zone she felt uncomfortable leaving, Natalie began to think, adapt and make a plan for her health and her life. She was forced to innovate and she became healthier for it. It’s not a far stretch to say the same goes for a troubled economy and the entrepreneurs who find themselves struggling to survive.
If there is a lesson from Natalie’ personal story it is that tough times can create opportunities and fresh beginnings for those who can change their attitudes and actions and for those who want to innovate. For those who are used to business as usual, innovation in the times of economic free fall is perplexing. What can you innovate? How much will it cost? Do you need to get someone to lead the process? While these questions are all relevant innovation also means finding ways to be distinctive, remarkable even. It means rethinking what you are doing and looking at your industry with new spectacles.
The solutions you create though must be applied to everyone, everything and everywhere in the company and the process must go on, non-stop. I have seen innovation turn companies into ideas-to-action factories able to compete only on imagination and ingenuity, inspiration and initiative. In one company employees are required to get together and share information on books they have read, conferences they have attended, papers they have poured over. This is brilliant because it promotes a learning environment and also a space for everyone to gather, brainstorm and play around with new ideas.These are all important ingredients in the innovation process.
As the months go on, many will respond to an impending downturn with fear and pessimism. These fears are as real as the doors we lock and the doors we open. For businesses, a downturn may be a time to trim marginal operations and increase attention to costs and excess, but it’s also a time to reinvent strategy, to drive the most talented in the organisation to come up with better ways of doing something, to listen more deeply to customers and to look in new directions and set sail, albeit a bit more deliberately.
Listening to all the terrible economic news, it’s hard to imagine that there is a silver lining. History tells us though that there is. Those businesses who are taking the time to innovate are the ones that are being prepared for the future. And just like Natalie, it will be a journey undertaken one step at a time.