Creativity In A Crisis: Tech Entrepreneur Calls for ‘Balanced Portfolio’ Approach

Being creative doesn’t have to mean disrupting an entire industry. Creativity and innovation can take place every day in small ways, even during a crisis and even at accounting firms.

Most business leaders think about innovation all wrong, as in, “It only counts when it’s so dramatic that it changes the world,” says Josh Linkner, author, speaker on innovation and the founder and builder of five tech companies. “When the stakes are that high and the risks are that high, it’s easier to do nothing.”

In the midst of an unprecedented pandemic, it’s easy to feel that creativity is irresponsible – a luxury there’s no time for ­– because attention should be placed on billings, accounts receivable and the like.

While these immediate problems must be addressed, firm leaders should spend at least a portion of their time – maybe 40% or 20% or whatever is appropriate – devising imaginative solutions. And these solutions can be applied not only to long-term issues, but also to short-term problems like increasing cash flow, Linkner says in a recent conversation with INSIDE Public Accounting.

He believes creativity can occur in any profession, pushing back against the idea that accountants are black-and-white thinkers who are resistant to change. “There are wildly creative accountants and wildly uncreative musicians.”

Small, daily creative acts could include coming up with new ways to interact with customers, new methods to recruit professionals or market services, or perhaps a new idea for how the office is laid out. Maybe accountants can create a new way of offering insight to clients – “reading between the lines” rather than presenting the numbers on the page, Linkner says. Perhaps there are new ways to help clients that are outside the normal way of doing business. Clients in a tough spot will appreciate outside-the-box services, which can lead to long-term relationships, he says.

Here are a couple of small creative changes he’s seen:

  • Dumping interviews for auditions – Rather than a session of “ridiculous” canned questions and canned responses, one company gave prospects 48 hours to solve a business problem.
  • Adding a “blocker” to management meetings – One CEO selected a colleague to disagree with everything he said -an on-purpose thorn in his side, so to speak. It opened up the dialogue and gave others the freedom to raise questions and concerns.

Linkner, a frequent keynote speaker at business conferences, has had to change his own approach during this crisis. His focus now is on long-term projects: writing another book, developing a podcast and rebranding his business. He’s also researching companies to see how they are responding. What he’s found is that the COVID-19 crisis has already illuminated bursts of creativity that may lead to long-term change.

For example, University of Washington researchers are crowdsourcing possible anti-viral treatments for the coronavirus through a free computer game called FoldIt, where players puzzle through manipulations of protein structures that could bind with protein spikes on the virus, disabling it.

During the last crisis, the 2008 recession, Linkner says many businesses made the mistake of becoming too myopic. Staying in crisis mode means a company will emerge no better off than when it started. Companies that instead created new processes, served customers in different ways and looked beyond old ways of doing things not only weathered the storm, but ended up much stronger than before the recession.

Linkner offers one warning, though: Don’t overcorrect. He foresees a more relaxed approach to remote working, but an all-virtual workforce is likely too extreme. Perhaps what may result at many companies is a hybrid model, with three days in the office set aside for meetings and collaborative projects and two at home for focused heads-down work. The crisis has shown how much people need to socialize and interact, so focusing too heavily on virtual conferences may not be the best approach post-pandemic.

Companies are also learning that business as they know it can change in an instant. Real-time changes to business models take up an immense amount of time and energy, but leaders should still devote some of their time and energy to thinking creatively and critically about the future.

Linkner calls for a “balanced portfolio approach,” not an all-or-nothing strategy at this time. “Just like any good balanced portfolio, you don’t put all your eggs in one basket, and you don’t want to do that with your time either.”