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How small businesses can innovate during times of uncertainty

From leveraging digital tools to exploring new types of creativity, small businesses may be poised to find new footing

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Small businesses everywhere are feeling the tension. Entrepreneurs who build and maintain their own businesses have always been profoundly resourceful, even in the hardest of times. But with a global pandemic looming over every decision, the pressure to problem-solve in order to survive can be overwhelming.

But here’s the thing: what makes this pandemic all-consuming is also what connects us. A global crisis puts us all under the same kinds of tensions, and companies everywhere are getting creative not only for themselves but for each other. There are strategies and digital tools, both existing and emerging, that can help businesses ease tension, share the burden, ultimately innovating in new ways.

Johnathan Cromwell is a professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at the University of San Francisco where he teaches creative problem solving in business. “The pandemic is changing everything, and as a small business, trying to find solutions to all of these changes can be overwhelming and actually hinder creativity.” The good news? “There are two creative problem solving strategies that can be used to help you focus and prime your creative pump – directed and emergent creativity.”

Cromwell suggests starting with the following question: Does my business have a clear and definable problem to solve? “If yes,” he says, “focus your effort on directed creativity, in which you iterate solutions to solve that problem.”

But in these uncertain times, anything “clear and definable” is often in short supply. “If the problem is unclear,” says Cromwell, “use emergent creativity, by identifying your unique resources, giving you a jumping off point to begin problem solving.

Bethany Salvon, a tailor and the founder of Speakeasy Travel Supply, offers a clear example of these creative strategies. Pre-pandemic, she frequently traveled for work. She didn’t like to travel with a purse or a money belt but needed somewhere to keep her ID and money secure. After defining the problem she wanted to solve, she invented a marketable scarf with a secret pocket hidden inside for travelers to put their valuables and then set up shop online to begin building her customer base.

But when the pandemic hit and her sales dropped, Bethany leveraged emergent creativity to round up her business’s unique assets and valuable resources. She discovered that the scarf materials could be converted into a new product – masks. By focusing her attention on her accessible resources, Bethany innovated a new line of revenue and used digital tools to engage and expand her online presence.

Small businesses owners and operators like Bethany have always been creative problem solvers who are adept at building relationships, identifying resources, and envisioning possibilities. With the right tools in hand, small businesses can focus their attention and resources, even and especially in a crisis, on what they do best.

And these digital tools are out there, becoming more streamlined, synergistic, and customizable every day. In a global crisis, perhaps what is most comforting is the notion that we are not alone. In this world, where we are all facing the unprecedented every day, innovation is not only inevitable but uniquely collaborative. And who better to lead the charge than the most profoundly creative among us, working together like never before?

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