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Is necessity the mother of invention?

09 Apr 2020 | Doug Parkin Doug Parkin, Principal Adviser for Leadership and Management at Advance HE, shares his reflections on the rapidly unfolding COVID-19 crisis and and its impact on higher education.

Who would have thought of turning a £25 snorkel mask into a ventilator? And secondly, why would anyone bother? Well, in answer to the first question the Italian 3D printing company Isinnova. And the answer to the second question is all around us: the COVID-19 disease that for some causes acute respiratory distress and linked to this a serious shortage of ventilator equipment in hospitals.

Approached by Dr Renato Favero through a doctor from the Chiari Hospital in Brescia, Italy, the idea emerged to construct an emergency ventilator mask by adjusting a piece of snorkelling equipment already available in high numbers on the market. The major retailer Decathlon, producer and supplier of the snorkelling Easybreath mask, was immediately willing to cooperate by providing the CAD drawing of the mask. The product was dismantled, studied, and a new component designed to provide the all-important connection to the ventilator. This link was called the Charlotte valve, and it was produced by Isinnova through 3D printing. Processes of certification and approval, normal for such equipment used in clinical settings are lengthy and so patient use is subject to them signing a declaration accepting the use of an uncertified biomedical device: “Neither the mask nor the link are certified and their use is subject to a situation of mandatory need” (Isinnova websitei). This is a non-profit venture and healthcare providers around the world can access the Easybreath masks through Decathlon and then team-up with 3D printers to produce the valves. Protolabs in Telford, England is now manufacturing the Charlotte valves for Isinnova. The files to print the valves have been made freely available by Isinnova on its website.

So, yes, necessity can be the mother of invention and brilliance! However, it can also be the mother of other things, too, such as mediocrity, compromise and poor reactive decisions. And necessity is not the only driver at work in the crisis climate created by COVID-19, there is also expediency and opportunism.

It can be easy to be persuaded by arguments of expediency. A sudden change of work modality, from being co-located to being virtually connected is a powerful argument for finding new and possibly innovative ways of working. The rapid move to on-line teaching and the need to manage research teams remotely are challenges to which, thanks to technology, it may feel as if we have ready-made solutions. On-line and blended learning are already widely established modes of teaching delivery as are lecture capture systems and the use of VLEs (virtual learning environments). Many research teams are a combination of co-located colleagues and others engaged virtually, particularly those set up as collaborative partnerships across institutions and agencies, often with an international dimension. Combined teams of this kind, where effective, develop strong and deliberate protocols for ensuring inclusion and a parity of engagement. So, in the face of the current crisis a range of expedient measures and approaches may appear readily to hand, which is not to underestimate the tremendous level of practical and emotional energy involved in effecting wholesale change in short order. Some of this may lead to innovation, some will ensure essential continuity, in the short-term at least, and some will possibly prove regrettable in terms of considerations such as quality, inclusion, and unforeseen consequences. However, change we must, and so we do.

Necessity driven by unexpected or unforeseen occurrences is one of the recognised triggers of innovation. As a result of it some people – not all – may be inspired to create novel or ingenious solutions. If, however, there is a ready-made solution to hand that appears to ‘do the job’, then the inspiration is likely to be lower than if the problem presents itself as intractable. A combination of urgency, importance and difficulty is needed for this kind of inspiration to work. There are other triggers of innovation as usefully articulated by Peter Drucker (1985ii) and a combination of these are evident in how organisations and society is responding to the current crisis:

  • Unexpected occurrences (including failures)
  • Incongruities (e.g. exceptions and mismatches)
  • Process needs (to make something work)
  • Industry and market changes (new opportunities),
  • Demographic changes (e.g. age distributions)
  • Changes in perception (mood, fashion, popularity)
  • New knowledge (displacement between knowledge and application).

A key aspect of creative leadership concerns the environment. Getting the environment right, physically and psychologically, is the foundation for creativity, particularly when working collectively (e.g. bringing together diverse groups). The key question is whether the environment is working for us or against us. Now, moving swiftly to virtual, on-line modes of connecting may seem to limit the leader’s capacity to influence the physical environment, but a sense of place can nevertheless be emphasised. This might be in terms of community, the needs of those we serve or simply being curious about the spaces and places inhabited by those we are connecting with. A simple question like ‘describe the view from your window?’ can create a useful basis for developing connections, building bonds and showing warmth. Even if we feel we have limited control over the physical environment, it is worth remembering that small changes, little pieces of individual initiative on the part of leaders, can make an enormous difference.

The psychological environment – mood, meaning and motivation – is strongly influenced by leader behaviour (both ‘appointed’ leaders and others), sometimes favourably and sometimes not. In a much-quoted piece from 2013iii, Rosabeth Moss Kanter observes that “for all the talk about innovation, I see many leaders in numerous organizations in every sector who actively stifle it”. The following is based upon Moss Kanter’s Nine Rules for Stifling Innovation with some adaptation:

  1. Regard any new idea from below with suspicion - because its new and from below
  2. Insist that approval requires people to go through many levels and organisational layers
  3. Make clear the consequences of risk-taking (should things go wrong)
  4. Ask departments or task groups to challenge and criticise each other’s proposals
  5. Express criticisms freely, withhold praise, and never fail to emphasise why certain things ‘just can’t be done’ (or ‘that’s not how we do things around here’)
  6. Control everything carefully - make sure people count things, frequently
  7. Make decisions in secret and spring the decisions on everyone
  8. Make sure requests for information are fully justified and not given out freely
  9. Never forget, ‘higher-ups’ already know everything about this organisation and the circumstances we face.

As Moss Kanter says, “following these rules ensures that innovation will wither on the vine, if it even surfaces in the first place”.

So, what is the alternative? Well, to inspire and support innovation and create a liberating environment in which new ideas can emerge and flourish the following are some key principles for the creative leader:

  • Psychological safetyiv – free from risk, blame and consequences based on hierarchy
  • Emphasise purpose – the essential thing(s) we are here to achieve and the real-world impact
  • Interrupt the ordinary – encourage people to think beyond ready-made solutions
  • Playfulness – experimenting with ideas, associations and new sources of information – creativity is intelligence having funv
  • Twist the kaleidoscope – find new ways to see the same things differently
  • Banish the devil’s advocatevi – for a while, at least, while new ideas have a chance to grow
  • Not a solo sport – facilitate collaborative engagement and use the best that technology has to offer to enable interpersonal processes.

Opportunism is another factor to consider in an extended crisis situation, alongside invention/innovation and expediency. As we are already seeing in the wider economy there are likely to be ‘winners and losers’ as these tragic events unfold and play out. Politicians and regulators are already making strenuous efforts to try to ensure there is support where it is needed and that organisations are not panicked into taking measures to bolster their own security, quite possibly at the expense of others. There have already been calls to bring back student number controls in the UK as higher education institutions look to mitigate the likely loss of international students (recent HESA date shows the very high dependence of some institutions on international student fees) alongside a potential downturn in UK student recruitment for the 2020/21 academic year.

There is an old African proverb which says that as the waterhole gets smaller, the animals get meaner. Such a simple yet profound truth may shine a light on some of the opportunistic behaviours that may yet emerge as the rippling impact of COVID-19 spreads. Some institutions inevitably are likely to be in a stronger position to take advantage of dislocations and disruptions in the ‘marketplace’, should the need arise, and the tension in the higher education systems that has sometimes been characterised by the compound word ‘collabetition’ will, perhaps, move more towards a competitive landscape.

Taking learning and teaching as a very visible example, universities all around the world have suddenly had to find alternative modes of teaching delivery, assessment and student support, the vast majority being on-line in some shape or form. There will, no doubt, have been some great practices, some good practices and some poorer practices. ‘Unexpected occurrences’ as detailed above is one of the seven triggers for innovation, and there will undoubtedly have been some amazing innovations as a result of COVID-19's impact on higher education, many of which we may wish to sustain in the future. Linked to this there is also the question of quality. Out of a sense of necessity and urgency does any university want to join a headlong race to the bottom? Unlikely.

Keeping a cool institutional head and doing the right things for the right reasons will be the marker of success over the next few months, perhaps, years. Each university should have a strong sense of its own distinctive proposition and offering, whether this be with regard to teaching or research, and maintaining that sense of purpose and identity is the true challenge of senior strategic leadership, even in a time of crisis. Your context – your students – your distinctiveness. That should be the wellspring for innovation, alongside the pressure of necessity.  

Among other leadership programmes, Doug Parkin co-delivers Advance HE’s new Senior Academic Leadership Programme which is focused on creative leadership. The ideas in this blog regarding developing and fostering a creative environment are core areas covered in detail on the course through activity, discussion and reflection.

i Isinnova website – (accessed April 2020).

ii Drucker, P. (1985) The Discipline of Innovation. Harvard Business Review – May-June.

iii Moss Kanter, R. (2013) Nine Rules for Stifling Innovation. Harvard Business Review – January.

iv Edmondson, A. C. (2019) The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation and Growth. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons.

v Often incorrectly attributed to Albert Einstein. It is more likely derived from “perhaps imagination is only intelligence having fun” which comes from an article by George Scialabba called ‘Mindplay’ in 1984 – Harvard Magazine, an alumni publication.

vi Kelly, T. (2006) The Ten Faces of Innovation: strategies for heightening creativity. London: Profile Books.



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