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Under Pressure: Innovating in Times of Crisis

November 4, 2020

Businesses are vulnerable during a crisis, so it’s understandable when some companies temporarily suspend innovation to hyper-focus on protecting their core. But playing it safe could be causing you to miss critical business opportunities. Learn how roadblocks that a crisis creates could become the fuel that ignites innovation.

Before March 2020, businesses around the globe were busy launching new products, planning for expansions, and making ambitious long-term goals. Then, under the pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic, they were suddenly forced to operate in an entirely unfamiliar landscape. Some businesses closed permanently, but many downshifted into neutral to ride it out. Surrendering to the urgency of the crisis, they focused on survival strategies to conserve cash, minimize risk, and protect their existing customer base. Meanwhile, innovation suffered, and growth opportunities were overlooked. 

While it’s natural under these circumstances to take a protective rather than proactive stance, times of intense pressure are fertile opportunities to use the challenges naturally built into a crisis to cultivate innovation. Businesses that learn how to identify those opportunities will not only remain competitive during the crisis but will also learn to innovate better in a post-crisis world.

Challenging Assumptions 

Innovation thrives during a crisis largely because many of the go-to solutions and assumptions businesses normally rely on are no longer valid. Being forced to challenge familiar patterns greases the wheels of creative thinking and allows you to quickly identify parts of your old business model that no longer work. 

Finding the Customer 

During a crisis, behaviors change, supply chains are broken, and governmental restrictions are implemented. In the same way roadblocks force you to challenge long-held assumptions, they can also fundamentally change how you view your customers. This inability to rely on old standards becomes the stimulus to creating more innovative approaches for knowing and interacting with customers. 

Connecting the Data 

A company that identifies its limitations and its new customer must now use creative problem-solving to answer that customer’s unique challenge, prioritize its products and services, and fast track production and delivery. Whether by creative workshop or thinktank committee, a crisis provides the perfect incubator for generating ideas, as collaborative efforts and motivation are at a premium.

Easing Restraints 

Businesses operating during a crisis soon discover what entrepreneurs already know: relaxing internal constraints will empower your team to innovate and execute quickly. Limitations caused by a crisis, like a reduced workforce and flattened hierarchy, allow innovation to naturally flourish. 

In a crisis, it’s easy for organizations to let the barrage of roadblocks paralyze them—but these are the instances when innovation is ripest. Leaders that can recognize and take advantage of these opportunities will more likely survive a crisis and be better equipped to innovate in better times. 


Check out how these businesses turned roadblocks into opportunities during the COVID-19 shutdown: 


When 60 customers called to cancel events within a 2-day span in early March, Flying Elephant Productions assumed they would fold. Overnight the builder of event stages had a surplus of materials and time, and their customers had vanished. That’s when owners threw out their old ideas and got creative. Within a month, Flying Elephant used their inventory to build and sell 2,000 desks to individuals now working from home. Today they have a successful line of home office and outdoor furniture, as well as custom sanitizing stations for businesses and schools. 


Chicago cooking school Get in the Kitchen experienced a shutdown of its own when it could no longer host classes during the stay-at-home order. At the same time, a wave of furloughed chefs searched for a way to earn a living in their trade. In an innovative collaboration, the school made its kitchen space available to the chefs, and together they offered the quarantined public a line of pre-started meal kits available for delivery or curbside pickup.


In early spring, Framebridge, a custom frame company out of Washington, DC, was forced to shut down operations. Owners knew they would have to redefine themselves to stay afloat during the crisis, so they used the resources, equipment, and inventory they already had to meet an urgent need. After rapid production of several prototypes using their own acrylic and cutting tools, the company began mass-manufacturing and selling face shields. 


Few industries were harder hit during the pandemic than restaurants, but the Bel Aire Diner in Queens wasn’t going to give up on their 50-year-old business easily. The retro diner combined their need for increased food sales with a greater need for community healing. Using an adjacent parking lot and a mobile ordering app, the diner launched a drive-in movie theater where patrons enjoyed film favorites and car-side food delivery. 


Faced with a decision between shuttering her business for good or finding a new way, the owner of La Piccolina Baby Boutique in California looked beyond in-person and digital sales to launch an online shopping network. Via Facebook Live, she broadcasted live sales events and tripled her daily average sales goal. Even better, her online sales have increased, as well.

Contact your relationship manager at 855.274.2800 to explore how Sterling National Bank can help you harness innovation to navigate a crisis.