How Innovators Can Prepare for Tough Times

By Scott Kirsner |  January 16, 2020

Let’s imagine the worst-case scenario — or at least a pretty bad scenario.

Some factor that is outside your control — like a steep stock drop, an industry-wide slow-down, or a major recession — causes your company to shift from growth mode into cutting mode. The C-Suite is looking to reduce headcount and costs. Anything vaguely risky or long-term is suddenly under intense scrutiny.

How does that affect innovation initiatives? And what can you be doing today to put yourself in a better position should a day of reckoning arrive?

True market leaders know they need to invest in both exploiting today’s businesses, and exploring uncharted terrain to discover new ones, says Harvard Business School professor Michael Tushman. “But explore groups take money — you don’t explore for free,” Tushman says. “In a downturn, there’s more emphasis on the exploit work. That’s a dead-end, because the downturn eventually ends, and new opportunities come along.” But maintaining the right level of resource allocation between explore and exploit, he says, “is not easy, even without a recession.”

To help you plan for (and survive) challenging times, we sought advice from several people who have guided innovation, insights, and incubation groups through difficult stretches, at companies like Starbucks, Whirlpool, Intel, and Levi Strauss & Co.