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Comment: Innovation Happens Even In Tough Times

Lisbeth McNabb



Lisbeth McNabb discusses the importance of innovation and the need for leaders to avoid shelving plans which could help their organisation recover.

Disney. Microsoft. Apple. All of these companies were launched during a recession. This means that even during tough times, visionary leaders were thinking about innovation.

As public companies think about navigating through these complex and complicated times, some might be thinking that plans for innovation from months back should be kept on the shelf.

Currently, it’s too easy to dismiss innovation as not mission-critical, and from where I sit as a Public Company Board Director, doing so will ultimately make it harder for many companies to stay competitive and return to growth, not the other way around.

It’s true, many companies are in dire circumstances right now as they face an unanticipated decline in sales against mounting bills and debt. The next few months will be a challenge for businesses at every stage of the spectrum. It will also be a time for great leadership to shine as key executives look for ways to navigate through this crisis.

I expect that we will see companies creatively looking for scenarios to meet market demand during the crisis. Some will approach M&A opportunities now or in the future, and yet others will make critical adjustments to business models and offerings

It’s true, innovation needs to look different right now. There are many unknowns in this climate that require a disciplined and strategic approach to longer-term growth.

Nevertheless. I believe the companies that will rise and continue to deliver results will focus on the following.

Act with empathy across the organisation

First and foremost, it’s important to realise that for some within your organisation, this will be the very first time they’ve encountered a difficult business climate and economy. For those of us who have been through it before, we can forget what it’s like to face that first downturn.

For me personally, I experienced first-hand the crisis in telecom and the union and fuel crisis through my executive work in the airline industry.

I graduated from Business School following Black Monday and saw the disruption across business sectors. This has taught me the important quality of resilience, and I try to share my lessons learned with my staff, mentees and the younger people in my life who may be feeling anxiety.

This is the time for sharing perspective, sharing stories and peer to peer listening, as together teams work to maximise output during these difficult times.

Pick your key player for innovation focus

Contingency plans are in place or being updated by now. Your leadership is making cuts and shifts to preserve liquidity and runway. At the same time, now is the moment to task individuals from within to assess innovation opportunities.

It’s very difficult to ask the same leaders to both downsize and find growth opportunities– so don’t. Separate out these two roles.

Partner, partner, partner

Innovation always benefits from partnerships given the higher risk (and reward). Sharing resources among commercial partners, vendors/suppliers and entrepreneurs provides for quicker validation across a ‘working team’, more market data, and quicker verification. This is not the time to go at it alone.

Look around the corner

Though it may feel that way, innovation is still necessary, it just might be a longer time horizon than originally anticipated. When I was at Match, I built a credo together with my peer (International COO) Joe Cohen, to “Launch, Listen, Learn.”

Although that is the right approach for a growth cycle, now is the time to “Launch (Test), Listen, Learn – and then Launch (Fully)”.

This is the more judicious path given the clients and marketplace are responding in unpredictable ways. Continue moving forward, though do it with a longer time horizon in mind.

Communication is key

Positivity and innovation point to a future of new paths. Of course, with communication in balance to the “virus climate” and risks being managed at work and in employee’s communities. Yet, it is key to know inside your company that some are working the downside and the cutback scenario is balanced with others who are working the innovation pilots.

Communication in this way reinforces the feeling inside a team member that our leadership is working with more than one play in the playbook.

In these challenging times, innovators will do a great service not only for their companies but for all of those that see them leading by example.

DIGIT Leader 2020 Virtual Summit

Lisbeth McNabb will be speaking at the upcoming DIGIT Leader Virtual Summit on 2nd July.

Now in its fourth year, the DIGIT Leader Summit has established itself as Scotland’s largest annual event for technology personnel focused around the theme of leadership. Confirm your free place online at

Lisbeth McNabb

Former COO & CFO, The Linux Foundation

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