How CVS, Carhartt & Elsevier Pivoted to Face COVID-19

By Kaitlin Milliken |  July 27, 2020

In this episode of Innovation Answered, we ask, “How have teams pivoted to face the challenges of 2020?” InnoLead’s Kaitlin Milliken calls Rhett Alden of Elsevier to find out how they launched their COVID-19 Resource Center in four weeks. Colleen Hau of Carhartt discussed how her team is working to make facemasks. Firdaus Bhathena of CVS talks about how the company’s COVID-19 testing efforts. 



Kaitlin Milliken: Hey, you’re listening to Innovation Answered, the podcast for corporate innovators. I’m Kaitlin Milliken from InnoLead. 

This past season of the show, we shared several updates from teams on how they pivoted to deal with the challenges of 2020. We also released two episodes that focused on COVID-19. The first was released in March — the start of most lockdowns in the US. In that broadcast, we focused on navigating uncertainty and working from home. In the second, we explored what the new normal might be. 

Now, months into the pandemic, we wanted to share the ways that companies have adjusted their priorities to meet current needs. 

Let’s start off with Carhartt. Carhartt is a Michigan-based apparel company that specializes in work clothes. That includes overalls, fluorescent work vests, and durable pants used in construction and other industries. In a recent episode of our live show, One Quick Thing, we checked in with Colleen Hau. Colleen is the Director of Global Product Innovation at the company. She shared how the company responded early in the pandemic to the increasing demand for PPE. 

Colleen Hau: It’s often the people that we’re serving and protecting, who are those frontline workers. And so, when we knew that there was a lack of proper face protection and even — they’re not quite hospital [gowns] but they’re sort of these — surgical gowns… A lot of companies don’t have any manufacturing in the US, we have some. So we said, “How can we jump in and quickly make some face protection that we could get out there to these frontline workers?” 

Kaitlin Milliken: And the demand for protection extended far beyond healthcare workers. Colleen says her team noticed a spike in mask-related searches on their website. According to Colleen, these shopping patterns indicated the demand for face mask-style protection. Items like bandanas and gator masks, balaclava-style face covering for cold weather, began to sell out online.

Colleen Hau: If you can’t get out and talk to your consumers, look to see how they might be using your product in a way you didn’t anticipate or expect, because they’re coming to you. They trust you as a brand, and they’re looking to fulfill some need they’re having right now.

Kaitlin Milliken: So now Colleen and her team are working on bringing face masks to the frontlines. But, it’s not just a matter of creating a simple face cover. Colleen’s team has to design something that can be used on construction and manufacturing job sites. That includes factoring for long hours and the physical demands that workers’ face. 

Colleen Hau: If it’s not comfortable, people aren’t as likely to wear it and so the best way to keep someone safe is to create that great experience around what you’re offering to them. We’re making face protection because our whole thing is helping people get back to work, and helping provide a solution that’s really comfortable, so they can wear it, and it doesn’t hinder them, and they can focus on their job all day.

Kaitlin Milliken:  Carhartt isn’t the only company that responded quickly to new demands. CVS also had to shift its strategy to meet coronavirus-related challenges. The healthcare and pharmacy company has been a large part of COVID-19 testing efforts in the US. According to the company’s website, 1,400 CVS pharmacies offer tests for the disease.

Firdaus Bhathena: I had this happen last week, when an 85-year-old lady who needed to get tested before she went in for surgery. Her relatives were very anxious to get her tested on time. And we were literally the only option she had to get a point of care test done that would give her a result in a couple of hours within the 48 hour window of the surgery.

That was Firdaus Bhathena, the Chief Digital Officer at CVS. According to Firdaus, the pandemic has accelerated the need for digital health offerings. 

Firdaus Bhathena: What happened with COVID compressed that timeframe down to three months. We have teams expanding capacity rapidly and working around the clock to meet with all of the demand that is coming our way. And a lot of it has to do with our COVID testing efforts. There’s another category of things that we expected to have grow. Things like pharmacy delivery, things like virtual health and telemedicine, things like chronic condition management, leveraging digital tools, that we’re seeing grow a lot, lot faster than we could have ever expected.

Kaitlin Milliken: As economic activities kick back into gear, the need for testing is likely to increase. Firdaus says his team has seen an increased interest in testing as employers explore how to return to the office safely and responsibly. 

Education is another important component of responding to COVID-19. To learn more about gathering resources related to COVID, we sat down with Rhett Alden of Elsiver, a publishing and analytics company that specializes in medical content. We’ll be back with Rhett after this break.


2020 has been a really unprecedented year so far. And innovation teams are tasked with pivoting to meet new needs. Our team is hosting an online event this fall for innovators to put their heads together and tackle some of their biggest challenges. Our annual Impact conference will be held virtually on October 20 through the 23 of this year. We’ll have keynote conversations, breakout rooms, workshops, and networking opportunities. You can participate from anywhere in the world. And you can get a pass for yourself, or invite your whole team to participate. To learn more visit Now back to the show.


And we’re back, with Rhett Alden. Rhett is the CTO of Health and Commercial Markets at Elsevier. A part of RELX, Elsevier specializes in scientific, medical, and technical content. His department of the company focuses on providing education and resources for clinicians. It also encopasses the company’s life sciences division which drives the development of new drugs and therapeutics. 

During the conversation Rhett touched on how the company kicked off its COVID-19 resource center in four weeks. 

To kick us off, can you talk a little bit about your role, and how your role is shifted over the course of this global pandemic?

Rhett Alden: The pandemic and the response has directly impacted all the areas of our business where we develop products. We have products that work with frontline nurses and doctors, that’s in our clinical solutions division. And they needed the most up-to-date information and guidance to triage and manage patients. I mean, we’ve seen that on the news. We’ve seen it with the emergence of new treatments, treatments that are failing, etc. We were there to help these clinicians get that knowledge so that they could really be informed in terms of decision making. 

And then our life sciences business, it’s also under my area. They need the latest research, not only to build and test new diagnostics for COVID, but also to potentially repurpose drugs for COVID. So we have a number of offerings that were really going through major changes. So instead of getting to the idea that we could deliver new content on a quarterly basis, we were delivering on a nearly daily basis to really try to keep up-to-date with the latest research and the latest training. 

And then finally, we also have a product or a set of products where we train nurses, and as you know, universities and colleges shut down. But there was still a need and a desire to get nurses into the field, right, and still get people graduated. So we really worked with our community, our customers, to help keep that moving and going forward. 

Kaitlin Milliken: So one of the things that your team worked on was a COVID-19 Resource Center. Can you talk a little bit more about that specifically, and what resources actually ended up in that project?

Rhett Alden: The Resource Center was designed really as a more formal mechanism to provide that access to information. And from the outset, it was intended, and it is, entirely free. We aggregated many of our products and our solutions into an offering that would allow users that were validated — and when I say validated, it really means that they’re actually working on COVID or related to COVID — free access to content as well as the advanced decisioning processing that we have in place. 

The platform itself is an aggregation, as I said, have multiple assets and it’s growing, really on a weekly basis. We started out I think, with eight products in our portfolio. And I think in the first two weeks, we added five additional products. So we’re continuing to evolve that and try to meet the needs of the customers.

Kaitlin Milliken: Can you talk about the timeframe that you built this center in and what allowed you to respond in such a fast way?

Rhett Alden: The challenge was a big one, right? Every day that went by more people were dying — more people are dying. And we felt that time was of the essence. So we set internal goals and very, very aggressive timelines not only from the leadership and executive level, but all the way down to the individual contributors. And that four week timeline was one that we penciled in initially, knowing that it would be a real gap and a real issue in terms of meeting it. 

Our teams in the technology organization, routinely use agile and lean processes, right? It’s really in our DNA. We’ve been doing that for many years. And this was a program where we could reach across multiple organizations. We could reach across disparate teams. And by having relatively standard processes, nomenclature and functional roles, we were able to really integrate these cross functional and cross disciplinary teams very quickly. 

When I went back and looked at the retrospective PowerPoint on this endeavor, we had 135 people involved to get this off the ground. So it was a major effort across, as I said, probably 12 to 15 different organizations within Elsevier. And I think what allowed that was first we had a mindset of developing MVPs rapidly. We had a mindset of really driving forward with some of these changes in a very lean way. So that was one of the key aspects. 

The other one I would argue is cultural. And that gets back to what I said about the people at Elsevier. If you look at Elsevier’s mission, it’s, “Lead the way in advancing science, technology and health.” And I think there’s no better example of that and the research center we put together, because that is really about leading the way and something that globally was desperately needed. 

Kaitlin Milliken: You mentioned that this was a team effort that involved over 100 folks within the organization. And I’m sure that external partners were also a part of that as well. What tips do you have for forming strong partnerships while people are remote to accomplish these types of projects? 

Rhett Alden: Yeah, partnering is never easy. That’s even true in normal times, right? There’s a lot of arguably stress in the organization and stress when you try to partner. So successful partnering, in my view, necessitates trust, which is often cultivated, traditionally through familiarity, right? And what that means is that, to build strong partnerships, you need fac-to-face interactions, you need engagement, and you need all the things that arguably COVID doesn’t give you. And in our remote setting, we don’t have those. 

So what we’ve been doing is really encouraging team members to really think, what it means to engage, and how to recast that so that we can engage better with partnerships and partners and also engage cross functionally. 

And to that end, we’ve been really focusing on building a culture where we can have virtual engagement that is strong and sustainable and one of the examples I’d like to give is that, believe it or not, we had pizza delivered to team members homes, and we had a virtual pizza party. It sounds like not a big deal. But to engage that way is really critical. So when we talk about building these partnerships, it’s really a matter of sustaining that in these hard times. 

Kaitlin Milliken: When it comes to working on new projects, you mentioned problem solving went into figuring out how to work on something so collaborative remotely. Are there any other challenges that arose when you were creating the Resource Center and how did you work through those in order to create something that felt substantial in the timeframe that you had?

Rhett Alden: One of the big challenges was remoteness, which we just talked about. The other one, I would say was balancing the other activities that individuals had. And maintaining the quality standards that we want to achieve in these products. One thing that we didn’t want to do was present to the public and or to researchers, a product that was either insecure from a safety perspective or a GDPR perspective, or one that I would say, didn’t meet the usability standards that were expected by the community. So even though we were going very fast, we still wanted to maintain high levels of quality. 

So we built that in through our agile processes and iterative processes to make sure that we were still meeting accelerated milestones. And while I would say that organizationally that put a strain on the team members, again, it maintained the integrity of what we’re trying to accomplish. And I think that in the end, that was a very, very good move, because we didn’t want to compromise on that. 

Kaitlin Milliken: You have a background in healthcare, and medicine, what types of innovation are most important in this field when it comes to working through challenges and building new things in this moment?

Rhett Alden: I would say first just to level set a little bit, I’m not a clinician. I might play one on TV, but I’m not one. I’ve been in healthcare forever, probably 20 plus years, building mostly digital solutions, and then also a few medical devices. So first, I would say that we’re living in a moment where knowledge is exploding. And, and you see that in a lot of areas, whether it’s home security systems or your car or whatever — there’s an explosion of data and putatively knowledge, and this is particularly true in healthcare. 

The knowledge base in healthcare is doubling incredibly rapidly. I mean, 15 years ago. was a doubling every seven years. I think now it’s every year, we have a doubling of knowledge. So the ability to deliver augmented decision making to clinicians at the point of care is emerging as an area where machine learning and augmented intelligence is becoming increasingly important and disruptive. And I would say it’s moved beyond the hype curve. I would say, within the industry, that now you’re seeing clinicians and institutions really look at specific problems where they need machine learning. 

It’s no longer talking about it as a cool gadget, but it’s actually delivering results and delivering better outcomes for patients. And I would say that this is an area where innovation is really needed. And it’s an area where Elsevier has some focus. And I would say that it’s critically important as we move into more and more automation of healthcare, and we move into more and more democratization of healthcare. So I think that’s an important area. 

The second one that I’d like to point out is that health management historically has been inside the four walls of an institution. And we’re beginning to extend outside those walls and I would say that the pandemic has, without a doubt, accelerated that. I mean, you’ve seen that telehealth and telemedicine remote medicine is now actively discussed. Psychologists and therapists are working remotely. There’s a lot happening now that I think is beneficial for the patient. And I would say that companies that are researching and experimenting in IoT, Internet of Things technology, and machine learning to drive better behavior, compliance, and adherence outside the hospital setting is really the next wave of innovation. 

Kaitlin Milliken:  All over the globe, and in some places more than others, things are starting to reopen — whatever that looks like for that community. What role does that play in healthcare? And how does that affect the type of things that your team is working on?

Rhett Alden: We’ve even internally begun to actively look at more patient engagement models in more what I would arguably call telehealth. And that’s because of this drive for remote engagement. And that this is a definitely a high area of interest for our customers. 

And then the second area that we’re really starting to think hard about is how to bring in surge workforces. Right as I mentioned, we have health education and training platforms. But accreditation for specialized services is often cumbersome and not well coordinated. 

And what I mean by that is if you think about, in the pandemic, the ability to intubate a patient, put them on a ventilator, that’s a very specialized skill. We have a lot of healthcare workers, but not all of them are trained in those kinds of skills. So that one of the challenges that we’re looking at is how do you rapidly pivot on ways to train and really uplift skills of workforces rapidly during a crisis or in this case, a pandemic. 

And then that kind of trickle down effects, because even shortages and workforce in a hospital on a weekly basis might be better mitigated by training existing labor and existing workers rather than trying to bring in contractors.

Kaitlin Milliken: Great. So we’re a really interesting moment when it comes to innovation. There’s a lot of opportunities to do new things, provide services, pivot quickly to meet new needs that may not have existed before. But on the other hand, there’s a lot of economic uncertainty. And a lot of folks in the innovation world are either experiencing or worried that they’ll be subjected to budget cuts, furloughs, layoffs. How can teams really prove their worth and protect whatever their initiative or program is?

Rhett Alden:  I’ll give two examples that are probably related, or two points. The first is at Elsevier, we focus on customer value. And we don’t focus on, arguably, solutions that may deliver what we think the customer needs. And this sounds simple, but it’s often something that is missed by innovators. In other words, what I’m advocating for is, “know the customer.” When we talk about relationships, you need to really understand the persona, the problems, what keeps them up at night, and really start to drive home that customer need. 

And then that gets to your second point, around some of the arguably the anxieties that are present today. I mean, it’s no secret that many companies are downsizing. They’re worried about revenue, etc. You really need to emphasize a focus on the value that we’re delivering. Because I, what I’m encouraging my team members to do is always step back and say, “Is this really important? Is this what really matters to the customer?” And I think, even in uncertain times, value is what matters right? In the end, that separates the nice to haves from the must haves. Our customers are still responding. We are still delivering value and we intend to keep doing that. So that was my advice to innovators is really focus on, even now, focus on the customer even more so.


Kaitlin Milliken: So pivoting quickly — especially during a pandemic — can be really tough. But meeting current end-user needs can help teams, proving that innovation is a worthy investment. And make the world a safer place. 

You’ve been listening to Innovation Answered. This episode was written and produced by me, Kaitlin Milliken. Special thanks to Colleen, Firdaus, and Rhett for sharing their insights. We’re hard at work on the next season of our podcast. Until then, you can check out exclusive, web-only content at — or join us for an episode of One Quick Thing, our Zoom meeting for innovators. Subscribe to Innovation Answered wherever you listen to podcasts for more updates. As always, thanks for listening, stay safe, and we’ll see you soon.