How to Execute on Innovative Ideas in an Uncertain Time

Last week Josh hosted a webinar talking about FIVE innovative ideas in an era of uncertainty. He covered everything from a mindset shift to making sure you have the right people and processes in place. You can watch the video or find the full transcript below.



All right, we’re going to get started here promptly at 3 pm.

Welcome to this webinar called Innovating in an Era of Uncertainty. As you guys can imagine, we felt like it was a prompt topic to be talking about in this time. There’s a lot going on in our world.

I want to give an introduction to myself, I know quite a few of you guys already know who I am. You might be customers, you might be prospects, might be people who talk with, you may have heard our podcast, Ask an Innovator. My name is Josh Barker. I’ll be your host and guide through this presentation. Some background about me, I run a firm called City Innovation Labs. We’re an innovation and product transformation company. We’re very ROI driven and focused on helping find prototype and build the right thing,

My background is working in the Big 4, I was a director at KPMG, as well as CTO in Silicon Valley. This is really where City Innovation Labs came from. A lot of what we’re going to talk about with innovation are concepts that came from both the Big 4 as well as my experience in Silicon Valley. So, without further ado, let’s kick things off here.


So, obviously, this world is a different place. Obviously, Covid-19 is changing all aspects of our life. There’s no doubt that I’m starting with that and just acknowledging it, that we’re in a far different world than we were two to four weeks ago. It was a far different place and my inbox is proof of that. Before my inbox had a lot of, “Hey let’s talk about the next project. Let’s talk about this roadmap.” And now my inbox is full of Covid-19 type things. Well, that’s all people can think about and talk about. What are we going to do about that? What are we going to do to help employees? A lot of operations have been paused across the board. How are we going to work remotely? There’s a lot of these types of questions and this webinar is going to kind of go through an approach for those. So the physical health of the workers, the economic well-being, scarcity fear-driven mentality. It’s a different world, like we were talking about. So like we’re saying, business is not as usual. So this presentation is really five changes that innovative leaders need to make in times of uncertainty.



So we’re going to go through all five of those changes, really, starting with the first one. So the first one is a mindset change. This one is obviously a good one to start with. Because as we’re going into our presentation, even innovation itself requires a little bit of a mindset shift in thinking. You don’t need to keep thinking about how to optimize? But how do I think outside the box? And Covid-19 is forcing a lot of businesses to rethink and re-strategize. And so starting with a mindset change is the first thing that really needs to change out of the five things.

There are two types of leaders. You’re really talking about two different types of leaders in a crisis. Oftentimes people are naturally fear-driven. They have an inclination and proclivity to that, but they often want to live with someone that’s faith-driven. So those are the two different types of leaders, we have a faith-driven leader and a fear-driven leader. And I’ve kind of outlined some examples of how those are different types of leaders and people.

A fear-driven person is very scared, panicked, doubtful. And obviously the antithesis of that is a faith-driven leader who’s strong, calm and courageous. Fear-driven is being self first, preservation focused rather than people first and being helpful at this time. We need to be thinking about others first, we need to be thinking about our customers and our employees and our people. Everyone is in the same boat together. We should not be thinking of how do we preserve self. Yes, we want to be concerned about our families, but we also need to be concerned about communities and our people.

Many times fear-driven people have knee jerk reactions versus a more measured response. So it’s very easy when something like this happens to be fear-driven when making decisions. For example, we need to let someone go or we need to take immediate action. While some of that is good like being quick to respond – it also means making a very measured response rather than the knee jerk reaction. Taking some time and taking a step back to analyze the situation. Oftentimes fear-driven people are risk-averse and are very short term minded. There’s nothing wrong with being risk-averse unless it’s to the point of not making future decisions that are really going to be long term and decisive for the company.

I’ve seen a lot of people in this in this time making short term decisions and not really thinking about long term ramifications. For us, as a business right now, what that means is there’s we have a really solid team. We’re also experiencing some of the effects where some of our prospects have put things on hold and customers have put projects on hold as well. I think a knee jerk reaction and one that would be risk-averse and short term minded would be, “Hey, we need to let everyone go and we need to not think about the future.” Well, having that future in mind is really what we need to be doing.

Being proactive and clear with employees and people. As a leader being clear about what the future holds. Instead of being defensive and close-minded, being vulnerable, transparent, and open-minded saying we don’t have all the answers. We’re not sure what the future holds. Being transparent about the information we do have and how that is guiding our decision. Instead of being pessimistic and negative, being optimistic and positive.

The last thing in this list that I really want to focus on for a minute, in terms of talking about a mindset shift is victim-based mentality versus opportunity-based mentality. So, really, when you start talking about what is victim-based versus opportunity-based mentality, we’re talking about in terms of innovation, right? How do you innovate in a time of uncertainty? A victim-based mentality would be thinking of things in terms of “if only”. If only the coronavirus didn’t come to the United States, if only we had more time, if only we had this government bailout sooner, if only fill in the blank, right?

Being a victim of your circumstance rather than taking ownership. No one is going to take ownership except for us. We’re going to step up and we’re going to have an opportunity-based mentality. Instead of thinking of “if only” you’re thinking “because of this.” Because of this (I say it with an exclamation point) because there is an opportunity. Saying, “because of this,” opens up new opportunities for us. Because of this, some of our customers have even found that this is the time to execute on projects to leapfrog the competition. Whereas the competition might be taking a break during this time, they can use it as a competitive advantage. Using an opportunity based mentality instead of a victim mentality.

So the first one again, to recap, this is a mindset shift. Let’s shift to more of an opportunity-based mentality over a victim-based mentality helping us move in that direction.


Number two is a mission change. And so what do I mean by mission change? The disclaimer here is, I don’t necessarily mean rewrite your mission statement. A mission statement should be a home base in organizational identity. What I mean is, it’s a great time to review it. Here are some questions to ask about your mission statement. You’re going to go all the way back. As leaders, it’s a good practice to start with the end in mind and go back to your mission. Go back to your home base, go back to your identity. Is your mission statement uninspiring? Is there no sense of higher calling in it? Take the time to revamp it and make it more inspiring, more long-term focused and broader.

The second thing, is your mission unfocused? Is there no sense of direction? Is it unclear what our mission is? Are we just “us” focused? So it’s not focused on others that you’re helping. Is it too narrow? Is it no longer relevant? You know, the coronavirus has changedr a lot of things in our lives. So a question we should be asking ourselves about our mission statement is what is now our home base and who is our identity as an organization?

And then the last thing is too constrictive. So is it not adaptable to changing times? Some good examples would be basically looking at Facebook. If you look at Facebook’s mission: they want to connect to the world. That’s a very broad mission statement. But it actually fits in a lot of different ways. It’s not just that they are a social network that connects the world. A social network might be too constrictive to narrow, but they’re broader. They say we want to connect to the world.

Some of the innovation that comes out of it as they’re coming up with things like devices that sit on your desk for videoconferencing that moves along as you move around in the room. Things like hot air balloons with actual 5g in them. All of these different things that Facebook is talking about and doing right now. They’re bigger, broader things that encapsulate a broader vision or a mission that really is how do I how do we connect the world? How do we connect people together?

So be thinking about evaluating your mission in this time? The big question to ask here is, “how can we accomplish the mission,” after you’ve evaluated it? And maybe it requires tweaking and maybe it doesn’t, given the current landscape? I think that a great example of is one of our customers is in the conference space and fabricates the conference booths and all the conference banners.

A great thing to look at instead of fabricating all these physical tangible things, which you can imagine what the virus really has them constricted to a physical space, and with no conferences going on, how might they reinvent themselves during this time? They’re talking about, “how might we become the premier digital conference event hoster? Can we put on these digital conferences that people can attend? Maybe it uses technologies like webinars or use technologies like Google Hangouts or web conferencing solutions to connect people? It’s a really interesting question. And they kind of went back to the mission statement of thinking through, are we really narrow-focused about just physically creating these items for physical tangible conferences? Or is it more about connecting those around us for like-minded activities.

So, the first thing re-evaluating your mindset. The second thing is to change or reevaluate your mission. And the third thing is to make a quick change.


Number three is making a quick change. As you evaluate your mission statement, you’re able to identify quick things to help your business. So there’s some key questions that we’ve identified and we’ve created a workshop which I’ll go over at the very end. We created a free workshop that guides you through some of these questions.

A part of being a faith-driven leader during a time of crisis is knowing if fear is ruling your decision making. Or is it not? And are you being faith-driven? Not all quick decisions are fear-driven, but oftentimes you have to evaluate and ask yourself, are they? That’s what a quick disclaimer would be, make sure that you’re not making knee jerk reactions, but you’re moving quickly and decisively.

There are two different steps that we’ve identified in our company. There’s what I call the three P’s. So Pause, Pray, and then Plan. A good methodology to follow, especially in a time of crisis, to pause and take a beat. Don’t knee jerk react with the changing environment, but make sure you’re creating a very measured response as we talked about. Execute and come up with quick and actionable items that change the game. So a lot of companies are changing and adapting to the times.

What are some questions should we ask? What pains are customers experiencing first? You know, I think it really boils down to being empathetic with customers. What can we do quickly? What is really in their heads during this time of crisis? The biggest things that customers are concentrating on is how do I move quickly and adapt quickly to the changing environment with my business? No one planned for a pandemic like this or for a virus to be released. No one planned for people rushing to the stores and for businesses to be shut down. So that’s the pain a lot of the customers are experiencing, right? So it’s how can I adapt to the changing times and ask my customers how can we help? How can we move quickly and have the spirit of help?

The second thing is, is what can we do to tweak our product offering that takes the market pressures into account? The example I was going to give just a second ago, one of my favorite shops around our office in downtown East Grand Rapids in Michigan makes smoothies. One of the cool things that they’ve done is they’ve actually changed their business model to include cups full of the ingredients you need to make smoothies. You can go and pick up, six or 12 of these smoothies. They might have a whole jar of strawberries with bananas or whatever you choose, and then when you’re ready, and you take them out of the fridge or the freezer and blend them yourself.

They’ve adapted their business model for the changing times to incorporate things like social distancing. We’ve seen this all over, even with takeout places requiring people to stay outside. They’re making sure that people keep a six-foot distance away from one another. So it’s a really interesting time to see people get creative on doing things like take-out. They’re doing this really quickly. They’ve adapted their business models to change ingredients and take-out options to include safety measures for the Covid-19 virus.

So and the last thing is, what resources we have available and can we use them for other purposes and help address some of the customers immediate pain points? An example I would give here is, Elon Musk, another great innovator. What he’s doing, which is really fascinating he’s taking a look at all the manufacturing power that he has. He noticed that he has all the capabilities of actually helping during this crisis, changing the business to shift over to manufacturer things like ventilators where there’s a shortage of ventilators. And so he looked at what resources he had and he looked at the people he had and he quickly is trying to adapt to the changing times.

These are some quick wins that can be done and we’ve got a whole list of options we take companies through and we help them from an outsider’s perspective. We look at their business and help them ask questions and facilitate conversations. So on the last note, in times of uncertainty, customers are naturally going to be fear-driven, right? So they’re going to have less money, their risk appetite is going to be generally less, and they’ll have less confidence. They’re looking for people to help give quick answers to their problems. That’s one thing that we’re trying to do with our customers and we’re trying to do with our prospects and people we work with. We’re really trying to come to them and offer quick solutions that might not cost a lot of money but would help them tremendously in adapting to the situation.

So that’s the the third change is a quick change. What quick changes can we help bring to the business? What quick changes can we make to adapt to the marketplace? How can we rapidly service our customers and be good vendors to our customers?


And the fourth change really is strategic change. And this one is actually a little bit more difficult to do during this time. To not be fear-driven, and let fear creep in to say, “Hey, we don’t have time for doing anything, you know, any strategic moves or any strategic plays.” All of that I would say is fear talk. It’s good to be expedient, make quick changes and be responsive. It’s good to take a step back and to create a small amount of margin. We’re talking about, you know, even a little time during your day to think strategically, right? So It’s a fallacy that we have no time at all, when really, we can take 30 minutes here or an hour there to really sit back and think strategically. When was the last time you went and evaluated your business? We use a tool called the Business Model Canvas, I highly recommend it. For those of you haven’t used it, it’s a great way to take a look at snapshot at your business. It’s a very agile approach. This is really asking yourself in a lightweight way, to evaluate your business model and measure it against the current market.

The current market, as well as the future market, is where the strategic part comes in. The second part is how will COVID-19 affect the business long term. It’s far too easy and such an easy trap for us to fall into to take a look at short term. How do we get over the short term? It’s good to look beyond that to understand how this is going to affect us more long term?

You know, as the virus is starting to be cured or the economy starts to pick up. How are we going to take some of the short term decisions we’re making and start to look at it more in the long term? Some businesses are taking a break during this time and some businesses aren’t. Some businesses are taking this as a competitive advantage time to leapfrog their competition. How are you making sure that you’re keeping that long-distance view in mind?

The third thing is, how do I make sure short term decision making doesn’t negatively impact the long term? We have all these amazing people and if we let them go thinking through what happens when we have projects again. Trying to hold on to good people and trying to keep the team going and moving all in the same direction. Trying to keep the ‘A’ team together. It’s really those types of decisions that make sure you’re not giving in to short term decisions that are going to sacrifice the long term and always keeping the long term in mind. Being a digital innovation product consultancy, we tell our customers is this is a great time to evaluate their digital product.

We can create and diversify or support their current offerings as well as start to create semblances of organization or optimizations that could be cost-saving measures at this time. So are there things we can do to save them money or are there things we can do to create products that are new service offerings. As we’re all going digital and we’re all going remote, we’re obviously running into new challenges. So some of those new challenges can be solved with new product offerings. During this time we’re able to offer this new product offering that is digital. With the virus being out and about, and people’s being nervous and conscious about people’s health, we’re interested in the digital world because we have to survive.

And the last thing is, is there a way that we can start our long term strategy now in a smaller way to experiment, gather feedback and iterate? Now is a great time to test a digital product offering or a small concept that has been tossed around. Now’s a great time to start testing a lot of those. From an innovation standpoint, where a lot of those have been shelved, we can evaluate them at this time.

When I say the word experiment, a great book to explore that I’ve encouraged a lot of our customers with is to read the book Lean Startup. What I mean when I’m talking about experimentation is testing the market. Before you go out and build something, really evaluating if something is even worth your time. That could mean building a rapid prototype, it could mean building a Minimum Viable Product. It could even mean an experiment that doesn’t require code where you’re assembling a webinar quickly. That’s how we operate a lot at City Innovation Labs. We’ll throw something together very quickly and we’ll see what kind of traction it gets.

Use this time to experiment, gather feedback from your customers. The other thing I would do is talk to your customers. This is the time to form relationships as everyone’s at home. As you can see, I’m at home. Everyone’s at home and has cabin fever. They want to talk to people. Now is a great time to talk to your customers, talk to them about how they’re doing and to really nurture those relationships.

Be thinking about even marketing in the future term. The greatest marketing strategy is relationships and concentrating on being there to help. This is the time that we really want to help our community members around us. It’s not the time to push anything on anyone. It’s time to surround people with love and pray for them and to talk with them. So really, gather feedback, talk to your customers, and iterate on what you have.


The next thing is, is people and process change. A lot of things to change with people and process as we’re adapting to a new way of work. People are working remotely or working from home and they have a lot of things going on. So this is a bigger topic, we’re going to divide it out to people first and then talk a little bit about process change. The first thing we’re going to talk about is people change.

There’s a lot of questions to ask as you’re thinking through your team. So the first and foremost, like we talked about, you’re talking to your customers. Really, it’s all about people. It’s all about people. Even from any team changes, ask, “How can I help my people through this time?” We’ve asked this question to a lot of our own employees and it crazy time, right? Schools are closed and with schools being closed and people working from home, all sorts of new problems arise, right?

You have to be creative, be innovative, you have to really start thinking through and talking to your employees and saying, in this new changing environment, how can I help? I’ve got a four-year-old, a two-year-old and a one-year-old? How can I actually do my work? And at the same time, be able to do a webinar like this, right? So that’s something we’ve never had to think through before where we’ve we’ve haven’t been able to go to the office, and we’ve been at home.

How can I use this as an opportunity to build camaraderie and unity, rather than division? So, you know, this is a really interesting time where people are working remotely, and they’re not understanding how to build a remote team? Culture is a huge one. How do I even create a culture remotely? Because if everyone is in their own world, and they’re all in their own homes, how do I make sure that people feel loved and cared for? How do I make sure that we’re a team and a cohesive unit? Are we working together and collaborating appropriately and effectively? So how can we do that build camaraderie and unity, rather than being isolationists and having division? So that’s, that’s a huge topic.

The next one is, “do I have the right team members on my team, given the present circumstances?” With this new environment, talking about new quick wins and new long term strategies, you might identify that you might need more digital because you’re doing a lot more work digitally, or you might need a team that that is more familiar with remote work, or you might need fill in the blank, right? So you might need team members that you don’t currently have because there’s just a new way of doing work. That brings up gaps. So what gaps do you have on your team? This is a great time to reevaluate the gaps as you’re thinking about new skills that are needed. During this new and different time, what new skills are needed, right?

It’s a very interesting time to start thinking about innovation to say, “Hey, who can help us think through creative ways to solve these problems that we’ve never encountered before?” So it’s a very unique time that we need a lot of people to think outside of the box. I’m very blessed to have such a solid team that helps all of us collectively think out of the box. We just had a COVID-19 brainstorm today, as a team and we were able to generate a lot of cool ideas in order to keep our culture intact, in order to be a positive influence to our community, in order to really even address some of our customer concerns with COVID-19. So definitely a wide range of skills that are new and needed.

The last question is what needs to change with the present team during this environment? I know a lot of our customers are having their people work from home for the first time. And they’re asking questions to us of how do you do it effectively? At City Innovation Labs, we’ve had a remote culture for a long time. We have an office in downtown East Grand Rapids and we work out of 1871 in Chicago.

While we have these locations and we’ve been very remotely distributed, we’ve been a team that very much is what I would say location agnostic. We’ve been used that as a competitive advantage of being able to work anywhere. I’m happy to discuss it with anyone hearing this webinar on how do I effectively work remotely? And how do I build a team in a remote culture? I’m happy to talk with anyone about any of those topics. Feel free to email me.

The next thing is process change. I’m going to group tools into this bucket as well with process. What tools can help us work more effectively, remotely? We’re working with a lot of different companies right now and helping them understand tools like Slack, Google Hangouts, Zoom? How do you take these tools and use them most effectively? You could be using all the tools, but there are great best practices to using these tools. I sat down with a customer this week here in Grand Rapids and over a virtual coffee, from home to home. And we talked a lot about how City Innovation Labs has effectively kept culture going and what tools we’re using for that. But what’s more, it was what processes?

I sat down with him and outlined here some meetings that we have every week that builds culture. It’s what I tell our customers, it’s the in-between time typically in an organization. If you’re moving from meeting to meeting if you’re co-located together, if you’re in a building, that in-between time where it’s watercooler chat, you’re talking to one another as you’re going to and from a meeting. But if you’re in a remote environment, there’s no water cooler chat or in-between meeting times, it’s you’re on, you’re off.

We’ve actually built some best practices which you can find on our own blog as well. We built out some best practices that help facilitate watercooler chat and be more intentional at work to schedule that time. For example, we have something called the week view on Monday morning. First thing Monday morning we all talk about how our weekends went. So we’re not going from meeting to meeting, to meeting, to meeting and talking about how our weekends went, because we actually got it all out in our Week Day and we were able to talk about it. So for us, we’ve learned these practices, these best practices and building intentional culture remotely, which we’re happy to guide you through and with tools and processes.

The second one is how do we adapt our current physical processes to a digital and remote one. There are a lot of IT challenges for example of moving physical processes to a digital one. So giving some examples of, you know, maybe when you’re at work, you have a shared drive, and maybe you do work off the shared drive and, or maybe you have a VPN connection, but your remote work from home policy was very laissez-faire. Well, now your VPN connection might be overwhelmed.

We actually come in, in this workshop, and you know, and we can help identify what IT challenges you might have. We’ve partnered with a great firm, OpStack. We partner with them to really help bring that market of helping alleviate some of those IT challenges and executing on it. CIL can help with VPN problems or shared drive problems, and we can do it rapidly. We can help set up tools and processes and systems.

So how do we adapt current physical processes? And then brainstorming how might we do that digitally? We do that together. And then the last thing that you know, on this page is I’m sure there’s tons of more process stuff you guys can think of. There’s a lot more in our workshop as well. What about marketing during this time? What do we change about our messaging?

I’m going to hit on this again is, you know, my advice would be don’t stop marketing. But you definitely need to change your marketing message and the marketing message should be all about people and emphasize that point. Again, I can’t hit on that enough. Loving your people, whether that’s, you know, your customers, or your employees that should be the message and how do you do that most effectively? And how do you come beside customers and come beside people in your market and love on them and ask them hey, how can I help you during this time?


That’s what we’re doing even here in this webinar. We’re trying to give you guys some value of how do you what are the five changes that an innovative leader needs to make, you know, so being able to kind of walk through all those with you guys, and as a blessing to me so that’s really you know, process and then and then the last thing is how you change your messaging and we said is literally just be real with people be transparent. The coronavirus is affecting everyone. And we’re here to help. We finished a little bit early. I wanted to leave a little bit of time for Q&A.

I also wanted to invite all of you to the full Innovating in an Era of Uncertainty Workshop. We do offer a free one hour primer. If you’re interested, just shoot me an email, we can shoot you information over on what that looks like It’s a free one hour and we’ll help you answer any questions you may have about your business and provide some facilitation, a lot of questions and a good roadmap for how to answer those questions.

We’ve got a lot of experience behind our belt, working with a lot of different firms on innovating. How do you especially innovate in a time of uncertainty or innovate with constraints? We’re talking about is innovating at a time when there is very little cash and a lot of uncertainty. But now is really the breeding grounds for innovation and that’s what you’re going to start to see everywhere.

As you look around, you’re going to start to see a lot of innovation happening and a lot of creativity. Like I was talking about with the smoothie places, with some of the delivery places and even Elon Musk changing his business model, There’s going to be a lot of creativity, and we hope that we can help be a blessing to you guys during this time. We can also help you be innovative during this time and help you adapt to the crazy changing landscape. So yeah, that’s really it, guys, I really appreciate your time. A lot of fun.

All right, well, I’ll leave you with one last note. Feel free to email me again I’ll reiterate my email At City Innovation Labs, our message to all of you guys listening in is we’re here to help you really want to help you during this time. We’re here along with you. The whole world is along here with you. And so we want to see your business succeed. We want to do everything we can to help you get through this time. And we do we feel we’ve got a good amount to offer.

If you guys are interested and want to talk about things like remote work, IT challenges, how do you innovate during this time? You know, should I spend more on innovation, less on innovation? How do I look at the long term strategic roadmap, all these questions and any questions you have, from a technology perspective, from a business technology perspective, we really want to help you out in that area. So really appreciate you guys this time a lot. It’s been good, good questions as well. It was fairly engaging. So I’m glad that it was helpful. So appreciate you guys.

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