Innovating Through Crisis: Don’t Just Survive—Thrive!

April 27, 2020

Harvard Business School's Dr. Lynda Applegate talks about how business leaders in the healthcare space are identifying opportunities not just to accelerate through the COVID-19 crisis, but to thrive in the future.

Dr. Lynda Applegate, Baker Foundation Professor at the Harvard Business School, talks to Michael Wong about business leaders in the healthcare space that are identifying opportunities not just to accelerate through the COVID-19 crisis but to thrive in the future. 

Michael Wong: Having spent thirty-five years at the Harvard Business School and engaging with CEOs of large enterprises such as GE’s Jack Welch and IBM’s Lou Gerstner, as well as with entrepreneurs and business owners, what is the playbook that C-Suite executives should consider as they strive to lead their teams through today’s pandemic crisis? 

Dr. Lynda Applegate: Unfortunately there is not a “playbook” that business leaders can use to lead their firms through the global health crisis of 2020. For example, during the dot-com crisis in 2000-2001, and the global financial crisis of 2008-2010, there was a specific set of economic factors that contributed to an economic crisis.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the shutdown of entire countries with an unprecedented loss of life and of the jobs and livelihood of people around the world. Consider this-by April 23, 2020 more than 26.4 million people in the U.S. had filed unemployment claims.[1]  But the threat to the economy is dwarfed by the personal threat of this deadly disease. Without courageous leaders, it will be a challenge to create innovative solutions that can help people and businesses survive through this current crisis. 

Given this novel and challenging scenario, what advice are you giving to business leaders who are confronting this crisis? 

Over the past month, I have been interviewing business leaders to learn how they are dealing with the devastating impact of the global health crisis of 2020.  These interviews have shown how entrepreneurial leaders are not just surviving-but are also helping their employees, customers, suppliers and partners to accelerate through the crisis. Rather than simply hunker down and cut costs, these innovative leaders are identifying a key “pain point” that allows them to leverage their core capabilities and strategic positioning to launch innovative offerings that clients need today. Notice how I didn’t reference a long-term horizon as one might expect from a business school professor. Instead, I encourage business leaders to focus on a compelling problem for a current customer or a potential new customer and then identify an innovative solution to that compelling problem to help you, your employees and your customers to accelerate through the crisis.

For example, I recently talked with Sassa Akervall, CEO and Owner of Akervall Technologies, Inc. (ATI) and her husband, Dr. Jan Akervall, an Otolaryngology Professor and Founder/President of ATI. Founded in 2005, ATI manufacturers ultra-thin, custom fit mouthguards for use in sports, healthcare and dental markets. Committed to cutting-edge dental protection technology, ATI mouthguards are made of a non-compressible thermoplastic polymer that is 30% stronger, yet thinner, than conventional mouthguards. In 2017, Sassa and Jan were named as Ernst & Young, Entrepreneurs of the year and, in 2018 ATI was named to the prestigious Inc. 5000 fastest-growing companies for the third time.[2]  “The fact that we are on this list for the third time in a row is a wonderful recognition of our whole team,” said Sassa Akervall. “Every day, they put in their very best to make sure that we protect teeth all around the world in the best way, using disruptive technologies that our customers love.”

The cancellation of schools, camps and athletic events during the COVID-19 crisis caused ATI’s revenue to fall drastically. But, Sassa and Jan immediately identified that they could leverage their positioning with healthcare providers, while also leveraging their supplies of clear plastic, and their employee skills to create plastic face shields that protect those who are on the front line caring for people during the pandemic. After having to briefly furlough some of their staff to cut costs, the Akervalls repurposed their manufacturing facility, called everyone back and started hiring. By April 24, 2020, there were three times as many employees as there were six weeks before, including fifty new temporary employees who had been hired to keep pace with demand.  As Sassa Akervall shared with me, “Our brand is about safety, protection, and quality so we not only saw an opportunity to launch a new market category of face shields, but we are continuing to innovate and are now launching another new product-a face shield that meets N95 standards that is placed on patients and has ports for doctors and dentists to use different instruments, such as intubation equipment, as they care for patients.” Within a week, the Akervalls had prototyped the new product and filed a provisional patent.

ATI is only one example of how business leaders are innovating through the crisis to enable them, their employees, their customers and their communities to-not just survive-but thrive. And, it’s not just small firms that are innovating quickly and creatively. Large firms are also innovating to solve compelling needs that enable them and their customers and communities to accelerate through crisis. For example, in a recent blog post, Sam Onukuri, a Senior Fellow at J&J, explained how J&J collaborated with Prisma Health to manufacture and deliver 3D-printed ventilator expansion splitters. “By combining Prisma Health’s concept with J&J’s supply chain and 3D printing manufacturing expertise, we were able to transfer the concept from a digital design to a 3D-printed commercial product in a matter of days,” Onukuri explained.[3]  

As we confront today’s healthcare crisis and the resulting economic crisis, I encourage business leaders to identify opportunities to leverage your current strategic positioning and capabilities that will enable you and your communities to-not just survive-but to accelerate through the crisis and to prepare to thrive in the future. 

Lynda M. Applegate is the Baker Foundation Professor at Harvard Business School (HBS), where she also continues to play a leading role in developing the HBS Executive Education Programs for entrepreneurs and business owners. Michael Wong is an Emeritus Board Member of the Harvard Business School Healthcare Alumni Association.

[1] https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/23/with-coronavirus-job-loss-at-26m-talk-to-kids-about-financial-reality.html

[2] https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/for-the-3rd-time-akervall-technologies-appears-on-the-inc-5000-list-300697962.html

[3] Downloaded on 4-24-20 from: https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6654360789371146240/