Driving Innovation Through a Pandemic

Tips from CEOs on innovating during the pandemic

November 20, 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has shifted the world’s priorities. Our focus has moved to our collective mental and physical health as we continue to physically distance ourselves from life as we knew it. Many have responded to these times of economic uncertainty and social isolation by holding on tight until the storm passes and normalcy returns.

Businesses of all sizes, for example, have hit the pause button on developing new projects, executing marketing campaigns, pushing creative boundaries, or revitalizing their brand. Some might argue that this period of unprecedented stillness, however, is the precise moment to take a few leaps towards progress.

As Whipsaw CEO Dan Harden states, “This is a perfect opportunity for design to shine because quality of life and quality of design go hand in hand. When people realize what they truly need in their lives, they always turn to quality over quantity, including quality time, quality experiences, and quality products.”

The question then becomes, how do we continue to get inspired in the Covid era in order to make these much-needed quality products and experiences?

As a consultancy, we work closely with our clients in a range of industries throughout the creative process, and we’ve seen firsthand how some of them have resolved to innovate more during the pandemic.

Here are some tips from their leadership teams on cultivating an atmosphere of innovation while working remotely.

1. Give Employees Time to Adjust & Express Themselves

The obvious reaction to shelter-in-place was to replicate the office at home, but that’s a recipe for disappointment. It’s bound to be an imperfect replica, as it’s stressful to fully bring work home, and offices aren’t perfect to begin with. Our team is diverse but dedicated, so we gave everyone the time and space to personally adjust while refining our company objectives and honestly didn’t miss a beat.

Andrew Kim, COO of Glint

Employees need to feel encouraged to express how they’re feeling, and what they need to be creative, productive, happy and healthy. Leaders need to ask these questions candidly in order to create an environment (remote or not) that’s conducive to innovation and unlocks the full potential of their talent, individually and as a company.

Alex Kazerani, Founder & CEO of Openpath Security

2. Focus on Mental & Emotional Health

My biggest piece of advice is to take care of your team of innovators. Make sure they take time off, and encourage them to take care of their mental and emotional health. We’ve spent a lot of time reminding our team of their various benefits, and we help them put them to use.
CJ Prober, CEO of Tile

I have found it extra helpful to exercise emotional awareness: Read my feelings; try to listen to the whispering of my soul to find out where I am hurting most; acknowledge it and exercise self-compassion. Do not pretend you are tough and you are not feeling anything. That is called emotional blindness and your colleagues will be the ones paying for it by dealing with your weird behavior.

Josef Parvizi, Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences and Chairman of Ceribell

3. Get Clear on Priorities

It’s important to remember that we’re all still learning how to navigate this–leaders and employees—and communication is key. In addition, giving employees clear direction on priorities and where they need to put their focus helps to minimize inertia.

Alex Kazerani, Founder & CEO of Openpath Security

4. Keep Moving, Writing & Reading

To stay innovative during the pandemic, I focus on three things: Movement, Writing and Reading. I think movement is key. Whenever I feel stuck, I walk. I also find that changing up the space I work from helps a lot. Finding a space with great natural light and a different view helps me shift mindsets. I also find that writing helps clarify my thinking. I keep a pen and notebook on me at all times in case the moment strikes. I also read daily to find perspective from other people’s experiences. All it takes is a fragment of an idea to get your brain going again.

David Bladow, Co-Founder of Ancient Ritual

5. Let Employees Drive Your Collaboration Tools

There’s a lot of focus on collaboration tools and we’ve adopted some, but our people drive the tools, not the other way around. As an innovation company, the change in scenery and rhythm has unlocked at least as many new creative ideas and approaches as it disrupted. No one would have wished for this year, however, Glint has been very fortunate to weather the worst of it in a growth niche with a flexible team.

Andrew Kim, COO of Glint

6. Stay Energized & Collaborative

I’d tell any CEO to remember the human side of the collaborative process when convincing amazing creatives to innovate alongside yourself. When my team approached Whipsaw, we weren’t yet venture-backed or public like most of the companies that approach the Bay Area’s top industrial design firms. I’m convinced that the chemistry between our teams, and the fascinating problem we were trying to solve was our primary selling point.

Life under COVID is taking the wind out of the sails of teams across industries, making that kind of excitement and camaraderie even more important. If you can provide some energy at a time so many COVID-related disruptions are draining so many innovators, that’s serious value.

—Drew Dawson, Co-founder & CEO of MXXY Outdoor

7. Listen Before Leading

Everyone has a different capacity for innovation and creativity in times like these. As a leader, I’ve found that in this time of unparalleled uncertainty, listening is the most important prerequisite to leading. Some thrive on in-person collaboration and collective thinking. Others are like wallflowers—they may thrive on their own, at a distance from the group—but they still want to attend the party. Some just need a happy hour, a walk with a friend or colleague, or some type of human contact to restore their energy.

Alex Kazerani, Founder & CEO of Openpath Security

8. Make Time to Socialize

During these times, it’s pretty important to make time with your team for things that are not work. It’s definitely more effort to try and set up a weekly happy hour or discussion about life such as, “What have you learned from being home more?” Zoom fatigue is a real thing! At Ancient Ritual, every Friday we have a 30-minute happy hour where someone from the team picks a drink that everyone tries to make and we discuss a topic that has nothing to do with work!

Matthew Schwab, Co-Founder of Ancient Ritual

9. Focus Your Team on the Grand Vision

More than ever, employees are directing their energy and passion into the work they take so much pride in. The pandemic has focused our attention and cleared away many of the day-to-day distractions. We’ve driven innovation by painting a grand vision for our employees and presenting our teams with big challenges, allowing them to direct their energy at dreaming up new things.

—Aly Orady, Founder & CEO of Tonal

10. Look Ahead

I won’t lie. The year 2020 has been awfully tough on us and we all know why. I won’t go there. I have survived by reminding myself that this crisis is not Permanent; it is not Personal; and it is not Pervasive (the 3Ps). This crisis too shall pass—it is not my fault—and I can find a lot of beauty elsewhere in my life that I can cherish.

Josef Parvizi Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences and Chairman of Ceribell

Share this article