Advanced Practices Council members – senior technology executives across industries – gathered virtually in June to continue learning from exemplary researchers and practitioners (including themselves) on topics they voted as high priority for their future success.
Given the timing of the meeting, the theme was leveraging a crisis to innovate under the right conditions: capacity to analyze opportunities, ability to collaborate across silos, and openness to experimentation and risk. Our speakers were Dr. Lynda Applegate and Dr. David Ager – both professors at the Harvard Business School.
Innovating Through Crisis
Lynda proposed the covid-19 crisis as an opportunity to innovate. Building on years of research and teaching, she described innovating as a process of learning while doing and forecasting under uncertainty. She described three stages of innovating: (1) stabilize and defend your core businesses; (2) accelerate through the crisis; and (3) anticipate the future and transform. She shared an example of a Mexican company that was founded as a spin-off to provide engineered coating and quality containment and supply chain services to automotive suppliers in the U.S. Midwest. Before the covid-19 crisis it launched a smart work station subscription service for automotive companies that automates front-line work. But by March 2020 it faced manufacturing shut-downs. As part of stabilizing and defending its core business, it considered how it could help its current customers to solve their immediate and compelling pain. Some of its customers had started manufacturing ventilators instead of automobiles. The company’s innovation mindset led to the creation of a mobile app to help their customers maintain business continuity and supply chain operations while ensuring employee safety. The app, offered at no charge, is used to protect front-line workers from contracting covid-19 while at work. The stage is now set for stage 3: anticipating the future and transforming. The market for the company’s products will likely go well beyond automotive manufacturers. In addition, the company is well positioned to create new products and services for existing and new customers.
Learning From a 2010 Crisis in Chile
David asked us to consider how leaders can get ordinary people to do extraordinary things. The leaders involved in the successful 2010 Chilean copper mining crisis did just that. About 700,000 tons of some of the hardest rock in the world collapsed in Chile’s San Jose copper mine on August 5, 2010. The collapse buried 33 miners at a depth almost twice the height of the Empire State Building below ground. Site maps were outdated and escape ladders were missing. Yet the miners were rescued alive.
After reviewing the situation described in the Harvard Business case, we identified the factors that led to success. They included unwavering commitment to a successful outcome, intense teamwork across locations and disciplines, systematic problem solving, persistence despite failure, respect for risk, innovation, and learning orientation. Many approaches were attempted in parallel. Ultimately, the solution came from an engineering student with a very different – but winning – approach. Fortunately, the leaders encouraged knowledge from any source. The Chilean leaders demonstrated the value of a learning-from-execution mindset.