Difficult Times Can Bring Out the Greatest Innovations

Anytime strict hierarchical structures are shaken, people like you and me have an opportunity to change them. To build a new paradigm.

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Working in oil and gas means signing up for a career filled with extreme ups and downs—and this year is quickly proving to be case in point. The COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Saudi oil price war created upheaval for the entire sector, making millions of people in the industry fear for their jobs.

During such difficult times, there’s a tendency to “hunker down” and “not rock the boat.” To basically put your head down, keep doing your job, and avoid taking too many chances. I understand that tendency. We all need work to live and support our families.

But my experience has shown me that in fact, difficult times are the perfect times to do something different: to innovate. To take chances. To create something new, whether inside your company or elsewhere. In fact, the toughest times can be ripe with the most opportunity.

When I formally launched Pink Petro in 2015, the energy sector was in crisis, trying to get back on its feet in the wake of a crash and increasing social cries about climate change. I had just spent 10 years as an industry executive, first as global program and change leader at Shell, then as a director of competence, capability, and culture, with a focus on safety and operational risk, at BP.

I had every reason to try to hold onto that well-paying and important work. But for years, I had been thinking about broader, more systemic changes that I wanted to help make for the industry, particularly around building gender equality and diversity across our ranks—from miners to engineers to executives and more.

The moment that clinched this idea came on an airplane, when a man I was seated next to asked me, “What’s a pretty young lady like you doing in a dark, dangerous business like oil and gas?” It’s the kind of thinking many women face in all sorts of industries, but it’s still particularly pervasive in oil and gas, where women continue to make up an especially small partof the workforce.  (And, as many of you know, women are underrepresented as engineers across numerous sectors, including energy.)

I knew that building greater gender balance and diversity would not only be better for the industry, but also better for the world. The more people with different ideas, perspectives, and backgrounds come together to collaborate, the more positive change results. I knew that inclusion fuels innovation, so making this happen could help shift oil and gas companies more toward renewables, helping build a sustainable future for future generations—including my daughter.

But why not wait until the oil price recovered and things were more stable? Why go out on my own and create something new at such a tumultuous time? Because there was opportunity in the chaos.

In its rawest form, the chaotic energy emanating from the crisis, with people scrambling to make changes and stem losses, was also vital and positive. People were on the move. They were ready and willing to consider new ideas. Anytime strict hierarchical structures are shaken, people like you and me have an opportunity to change them. To build a new paradigm.

So I took the gamble. I left the relative safety of a “cushy” role, and struck out on my own.

It wasn’t easy. But it was absolutely the right call. The work I’ve been able to do through Pink Petro, our jobs site Experience.Energy, and our annual events has been even more rewarding and exciting than I’d dreamed.

I’m certainly not saying that everyone should leave their companies and launch startups. But when times seem particularly tough, consider that it may be the right time to innovate. This can mean bringing up new ideas inside your company that could transform any part of its operations. It could mean taking part in, or creating, new cross-functional projects to make sure your input is part of the process. Or it could mean participating in a project in your community that helps people in new ways.

As Tendeka CEO Brad Baker once wrote in JPT, “innovation” is a “word we throw around.” Indeed, it is used often in all sorts of contexts. But what does it really take to be an innovative engineer? In a research study, four professors described innovative engineers as those “willing to break rules, take risk(s), challenge authority, think longer term and likely to persist until they find a new way to solve the problem.” They also collaborate with people “outside of their knowledge base” so that potential solutions are not limited by what they already know or are able to do.

If this describes you, then you’re quite possibly an innovator. You may notice problems and changing forces that are reshaping the industry, and instinctively consider how to make them better. Quite possibly, you notice a wide variety of these forces.

For me, Pink Petro didn’t just materialize out of a desire for diversity and inclusion. I had also noticed other changes taking root. I saw that people had an appetite for new ways to connect. Social media reflected this. People were becoming open to forms of emotional connection through technology that hadn’t ever existed before. I also saw that as people’s forms of connection shift, markets shift with them. As humans forge new ways of relating, markets will inevitably follow.

These ideas played key roles in my creating Pink Petro as a community platform committed to improving the economic health of companies in the marketplace while forging a path for diversity and inclusion.

The more changing forces you find yourself observing and thinking about, the more likely you are to create an idea that works—one that speaks to the realities of the moment.

But, to paraphrase an old quote often attributed to Thomas Edison, inspiration isn’t enough—making your ideas happen takes a lot of perspiration.

It requires grit. If you pursue an innovative idea, whether inside or outside your company, you’ll definitely face setbacks. You’ll have times when you question whether it can succeed. You’ll have to shift along the way, changing your plans and tweaking your idea. It takes a marathon mentality, always focusing on achieving the next leg of the journey with the final goal in mind. If you persevere, you’ll reap the rewards, and so will the rest of us.

We’re living at a time of profound change at an unprecedented rapid pace. New technologies and other forms of disruption are constantly creating new challenges. The petroleum industry is under huge pressure to revolutionize, achieve net zero emissions, and help make conditions on Earth healthy and inhabitable in the decades to come.

It will take vision, will, and grit to achieve this. It’s time for a massive influx of innovation in this sector. If you are up for it, then now is not the time to hold back. Charge forward and help build the new era. Together, we can do this.


Katie Mehnert is the founder and CEO of Pink Petro and Experience Energy. She is author of the book Grow with the Flow: Embrace Difference, Overcome Fear, and Progress with Purpose.