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  • Marnie Suss

how a novel crisis inspires innovation

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

Novel crises are unprecedented events or situations that disrupt norms and systems, demanding swift and adaptive responses. These crises often present unique challenges, testing the resilience of governments, organizations, and individuals. While each novel crisis possesses distinct characteristics requiring agile and anticipatory strategies, it is rare for a situation to be entirely new.

As practitioners charged with managing these crises, it is crucial to look beyond the surface "novel" label and dissect the situation with precision. Upon closer examination, we discover that novel situations often consist of common, familiar, and frequently experienced elements. The novelty primarily lies in the environment, timing, and circumstances surrounding the crisis.

It is essential to differentiate between these two groups to swiftly understand the situation and discern when past experience may be applicable and when innovation becomes necessary.

covid-19: a novel crisis with familiar parts

Consider the case of Covid-19—a novel virus that unleashed a pandemic. While most countries, organizations, cities, and individuals did not have a specific coronavirus plan, many had already developed pandemic or infectious disease plans. Furthermore, many jurisdictions had plans for continuity of operations, sheltering and feeding, health and medical, and mass fatality operations. When we break down the response requirements for Covid-19, such as public health and safety, sheltering, feeding, health and medical care surge, and continuity of services, we realize that we have planned and practiced for similar situations regularly.

The novelty arises from the severity, complexity, and the need to adapt these plans to the current situation in real-time.

Given this dichotomy of new vs. familiar, how can leaders avoid decision making traps associated with novel crises?

avoid assuming 'new' always means 'more complicated'

It is essential to remember that a situation can be new without being inherently more complicated. Although Covid-19 posed complexity due to its scope and severity, many of its components were not entirely unfamiliar. We were able to utilize and adapt existing plans and processes to achieve our goals. As leaders, it is crucial to dispel the novelty label and remind people that while the situation may be new, what needs to be done is often familiar.

take calculated risks to seize opportunities.

In new situations, it is human nature to cling to the familiar. Novel crises are not the time to retreat to what is comfortable because the public, customers, politicians, and stakeholders generally display a higher tolerance for calculated risks. People tend to be more understanding, given the "unprecedented" nature of the event. Since the situation may be unfamiliar, individuals are less likely to compare, critique, and stall what may be normally viewed as riskier decisions. Embracing calculated risks can present opportunities and advancements.

One example is allowing emergency management personnel to work remotely. Prior to Covid-19, this would have been unimaginable. We took the calculated risk of potentially disrupting the response to protect the people managing the response. As a result, not only were operations able to continue, many were more seamless and focused because of the remote environment. We were also able to surge staffing more efficiently by tapping into remote talent across the country.

amplify the innovation mindset.

Innovation can become the practice of the future. If leadership sets the tone and appreciation for new ideas, novel situations can be a positive environment for change.

In many ways, opting for change is harder than being forced into it. Covid-19, despite its immense pain and heartache, spurred innovation in almost every sector. While not every novel crisis will require a complete overhaul, there will be instances where leadership must choose to try something new or to do things differently.

In navigating novel crises, leaders must transcend the surface-level novelty and recognize the presence of familiar elements within the situation. By avoiding decision-making traps associated with assuming complexity, shying away from calculated risks, and disregarding innovation, leaders can better guide their organizations and communities through uncharted territories. The Covid-19 pandemic served as a poignant reminder of the importance of open-mindedness, adaptability, and the ability to inspire collective action during times of crisis.



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