Innovation in a Time of Crisis

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During times of rapid change and uncertainty, there is often a strong desire to hunker down and ride out whatever conflict is causing the crisis. But, during a crisis more than any other time it is critically important to ignore this instinct and to continue to fearlessly adapt and innovate. Why? Because while it is easy to get bogged down in the scarier aspects of uncertain times and crisis there is often a wealth of opportunity that accompanies any crisis. 

The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word "crisis." One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger — but recognize the opportunity. - John F. Kennedy

(JFK slightly missed the mark on his translation. The character he noted as opportunity actually means “a crucial point, when something begins to change.” I think this revised translation is even more apt during this global crisis.) 

The success, or lack thereof, an organization faces following a crisis is often determined by this ability to adapt and capitalize on the crisis and adapt in that critical moment when everything changes. As Winston Churchill famously said, “Never waste a good crisis.” And remember, even if you are not capitalizing on this double edged sword, the competition is.

What do we mean by innovation? 

The “I” word (as I call it) has more hype around it today than NFTs, Clubhouse. and the Austin real estate market combined. And yet, there is not much clarity on what exactly innovation entails or even how you undertake the process of innovation. Innovation is more than simply building (or buying) shiny new technology. My favorite definition for innovation is: the process of creating value by applying novel solutions to meaningful problems. And these novel solutions involve great people, using the right process, with the right tech to face challenges. 

Innovation is more than building new toys or checking a box on an RFP or reacting to changing times. Truly great innovation is not afraid to disrupt and build the solutions that meet the needs of the future.

Why now? 


The pandemic has fundamentally shifted how people live, work, and play. How and where we interact professionally and personally has shifted dramatically. And over 90 percent of executives said they believe the pandemic will fundamentally change the way they do business for the next five years. This is especially the case in the legal industry because technology adoption was lower than other industries and many firms held on to a strictly on-premise model. In order to meet the shifting needs of legal clients, legaltech has had to dramatically shift to virtual. 

How does crisis spawn innovation? 

  • Creates a sense of urgency
  • Allows an organization to refocus time, people, and resources
  • The crisis allows for more experimentation to solve the singular problem 
  • A crisis highlights weaknesses and gaps in the current approach
  • The time constraint of a crisis allows an organization to sprint with innovation
  • The cost of failing to innovate makes it a priority

For DISCO, adaptation and innovation in this crisis came naturally. We pivoted immediately to fully remote review teams taking advantage of technological capabilities already baked into our system like Amazon Workspaces. As well as moving to an increased reliance on our remote collection capabilities to support clients who no longer felt saf having forensic teams (and themselves) in the office. 

For DISCO, innovation and adaptation is in our DNA, so we were well-equipped to meet the need to rapidly pivot just over a year ago. The result for our clients was a seamless shift to a virtualized ediscovery experience in the cloud, with better results than before the pandemic

via McKinsey & Company

How does a crisis inspire innovation? 

Instead of building new tech and exploring green pastures, innovators today are being asked to repurpose and reimagine how business is done in a new context and with the same limited resources and tools. Adaptation is the word of the day!

Additionally, the saying “there is no time like the present” is especially apt when thinking about innovation in the midst of a crisis. Many people think the best bet is to hunker down and ride out uncertain times, but taking that approach misses a crucial opportunity for many individuals and organizations. 

Crisis is a smart time to push innovation because a good idea is a good idea (no matter the climate), entrepreneur grit and tenacity make things happen (even in a crisis), and when the right crowd supports a project, anything is possible. The 2008 financial crisis actually spawned half a dozen of the most influential businesses today including Uber, AirBnb, and even Slack. Great ideas backed by passionate individuals can thrive in even the most hostile environment and sometimes it's exactly this heavy pressure that these gems require.

Innovation ≠ Invention

Innovation is more than simply creating a new shiny widget and then walking away. True innovation may involve savvy people creating or refining processes and/or leveraging new or existing tech to face a challenge in a new way. You can innovate with or without technology, but technology alone is not innovating. 

Innovation does not always mean making a new product or developing a blue ocean strategy. In a time of crisis, innovation may center more on adapting to meet the changing needs of your organization and clients. Shiny new technology that doesn’t fix a problem or help customers (internal or external) is not innovation. But the right new technology to solve a problem can drive innovation. To truly innovate, rely on people at all levels and foster improved processes to make the most of existing and novel technology. 

Balance fear and desire to innovate

Every organization wants to innovate, but few take the leap of faith to do so. Why? Because many have myths about innovation holding them back. The rationale runs the gamut, from “only certain organizations can innovate” to “we don’t have the money or brain power to try,” to just plain being scared of innovation. 

But, the reality is that innovation can start small by asking yourself, “Can we do this better?” Innovation starts with just a few simple questions and doesn’t require fancy consultants, geniuses, or big budgets:

  • Who am I helping?
  • What is their problem?
  • How can I fix it?
  • Why does this matter?
  • Is there a better way?
  • Repeat the process

You can start as small as you need to and still make a large impact. Simple shifts in business strategy or outlook can be every bit as powerful as new technology and groundbreaking discoveries.

Fostering a culture of innovation 

People and organizations that think “I will never be able to do that. I’m not a creative genius” and wait for Elon Musk to show up will never innovate. Lone visionaries are rare, but innovation does not have to be. And even the lone geniuses did not start at zero, go it alone, or execute perfectly. 

  • Stand on the shoulders of giants
  • Leverage your team
  • Anyone can ask “Can we do it better?”
  • Look for ideas from anyone and everyone
  • Quit fearing failure

At the end of the day, you cannot teach innovation, but you CAN teach a mindset that is receptive to new ideas and willing to ask “can this be done better” in an enabling environment that embraces innovation. 

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Cat Casey
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