Innovation is a word that gets thrown around and is often misunderstood. Simply put, innovation is what happens when brave people put ideas to work. Change doesn't ask for an invitation; it just shows up. Whether we were prepared for it or not, change is here! To help you navigate this season, here are seven principles that great leaders throughout history have understood about seasons of change and what leaders are doing in the trenches now to innovate through this pandemic.
1. Ask, “What does this make possible?” I’ve lived in Nashville for the last 20 years and can confirm that Southerners fry and smoke just about anything. One of my favorite Southerners is Pat Martin, owner of Martin's Bar-B-Que Joint. When the "Safer at Home" order started, dining rooms quickly closed and beloved employees had to be furloughed. For Pat, and for many restaurateurs around the globe, it was time to find a way to keep the lights on, keep as many people employed as possible and serve customers. So he launched delivery services, streamlined the menu and created affordable take-home family dinners. I imagine lots of new business opportunities will come from asking, "What does this make possible?"
2. Treat every day like it’s day one. In the book, The Bezos Letters, Steve and Karen Anderson unpack the hidden truths hiding in plain sight within Amazon founder Jeff Bezos' annual letters to shareholders. One of the paradigm-shifting principles they uncovered is day-one thinking. At Amazon, they treat every day with the same energy they were greeted with on the company's first day. The global economy is definitely in the middle of a reboot and there is no better time to deploy day-one thinking because, truthfully, we are day one of a new normal.
3. Take action on your ambition. When the United States was entangled in its Civil War, Cornelius Vanderbilt was changing travel by constructing much of the railway structure we still use today. In the middle of the country recovering from war, he built his shipping empire and pivoted from waterways to railways. While many were mourning what was lost, Vanderbilt was engaged in creating the future.
4. Adapt. We've all heard the saying, "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade." Overnight, Chris Markgraf, co-founder of Froggy's Fog, pivoted his main business after discovering the market for "lemonade" wasn’t there as the events industry took a major hit due to COVID-19. Before the pandemic, his factory was creating the fog and smoke you enjoy at live concerts, theme parks and haunted houses. Then the world shut down. His team quickly got the certifications and approvals to produce hand sanitizer. Rather than make Coldplay or Taylor Swift's next concert look amazing, he shifted his production lines to make lifesaving hand sanitizer to help those in the front lines. Without this pivot, business would be down. Instead of digging in their heels about what they make, they asked how they could meet a greater need. Companies from MyPillow to General Motors have found ways to use their employees and their talents to meet an immediate need.
5. Lead your team first. Your team is looking to you to know how to react. Adam Duckworth, founder of Travelmation—a travel agency based in South Florida with nearly 500 agents—was faced with the question, “How do we leverage this moment to prepare for the future and invest heavily into what's next?” COVID-19 has devastated the travel industry. "This time was so unique in that we banded together like never before—provided additional training, including training on making it through the pandemic—and we are going to skyrocket extremely soon," says Adam, who understands that his customers need him now more than ever. The best way to serve customers is to equip the team to do so.
Featured Resource: Innovating as a Team
6. Stand your ground. Walt Disney experienced the greatest success with the release of Steamboat Willie months before the country entered The Great Depression. The audacious idea of taking cartoons that were just a short-form medium shown before the "real movie" led to the first full-length animated feature, Snow White. Walt's innovative spirit was tied to his tenacity—while everyone was trying to tell him all of the reasons his ideas weren’t possible, he got to work showing them they were. For Walt, it wasn't about pivoting to something new; it was about going all-in on what the company he built was already great at.
7. Take personal responsibility. This one isn't too popular. It was impossible to anticipate how this pandemic would have unfolded, but every leader I've spoken to wishes they were better prepared. The legendary Jack Welch famously once said, "Control your own destiny or someone else will." We are in pivot-and-response mode right now, but it's not too soon to step up and prepare for what may happen next. Now is the time to own it and move forward with a plan. Create new revenue streams and your bailout plan.
I have seen these principles play out in my business. In these last weeks, I've turned my attention from the stage and creating live events to digging in and serving my coaching clients so they aren't just getting by but growing their businesses. After 25 years of writing and speaking, I’ve learned that oftentimes the most innovative thing to do is to ignore the noise and just get to work.
We need you to lead. We need you to be brave enough to make ideas reality. We need you to be bold enough to ask, “What does this make possible?” We need you to remember the best is yet to come.