Team discussion on factory floor photograph.

Innovation flourishes during challenging times as we quickly realise what is of greatest value.

Learnings we can take from recent events to drive future ingenuity

Innovation means nothing if it is not delivered in a timely fashion, let alone at just the right time for markets and consumers to take the next groundbreaking product seriously. Indeed, the Athenian philosopher Plato observed that “necessity is the mother of invention” some 2,400 years ago (with the term ‘invention’ broadly covering ‘innovation’). Fast forward to the 21st century and this ancient wisdom continues to resonate profound meaning. 2020 is taking form as the year we reconsidered exactly what qualifies something to be an innovation. 

Digital transformation has finally been pushed over the line

Take the clearest example of fast-track innovation now felt by millions the world over: the digital transformation of key business practices. For many enterprises, the notion was one of perennial discussion and debate, failing to move beyond initial conversations due to practical and financial constraints. It took an outside threat coupled with the confluence of other technological advances — cloud computing, 5G, Wi-Fi six, machine learning and IoT enabled devices to name a few — to make remote working a reality and even a highly desirable office alternative for many. Out of necessity, businesses, students, public servants and healthcare professionals have managed to effectively cope with the disruption caused by the pandemic and the disruptive government efforts to mitigate its effect.

The modern principles of business innovation

We can analyse the underlying motivations behind digital transformation as well as those from other shining examples of innovation during this time of crisis. Insights gleaned from case studies are invaluable assets in helping to steer the path towards sustained creative thinking and problem-solving.

Here are three concurrent notions we have identified in recent breakthroughs.

Return to an elastic state of readiness

Organisations solidify as they grow, akin to how crystalline structures gradually form deep within the earth. As business structures and internal processes take on recognisable forms, they become key channels for communications alongside being indicators of efficiency, growth and progress. During crises, these systems are challenged, stressed and strained. Some cope while others are pushed to breaking point.

Take supermarkets for example. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, grocers have seen huge swells in demand and the traditional means of securing small, predictable inventories has been thrown out. In response to consumer demands, procurement has fine-tuned its systems to rapidly seek out bulk quantities of products. Certain bureaucratic elements centred on shipment review and approval essentially evaporated during the sudden process-change in the bid to quickly deliver results.

Move fast and don’t be afraid to break things (even when seeking FDA approval)

The process of ideation, development and implementation fundamentally shifts and the pace quickens when faced with an external stressor. What may take months or even years to research and receive the green light is rapidly pushed through with revised emphasis placed on experimentation, failing fast and moving forward.

Nowhere is this ethos more apparent and inspiring than in addressing the ventilator shortage in New York City. To fill this gap, the Spiro Wave was designed and rolled out by an extended team in a mere three weeks where traditional ventilators typically take a year or longer to develop.  

Dan Levitan, Executive Vice President at strategic communications agency BerlinRosen, was involved with the project from the outset. He highlighted the importance of the overall objective and the team dynamic in delivering their impressive results.

Commenting on the project’s success, Mr. Levitan explained that: “This group was focused on what we can do right now to make (ventilators) for New York City dealing with the first wave of COVID-19. It wasn’t just talking about the new product and what it could do, but also the collaboration behind it and how that came together. It was a group of engineers researching all on a volunteer basis. They found each other very quickly and started working on the design in a collaborative way to do something that usually takes months in just a few weeks.”

The final design was the product of multiple collaborations between businesses, the New York city council and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with the final product being cheaper to manufacture than its competitors.

Value collaboration as the competitive advantage it really is

Product ecosystems are eternally growing more complex and intricate. It makes simple business sense to collaborate and widen your talent pool beyond the confines of your immediate organisation to keep up with the ever-quickening pace of innovation.

Many continue to resist an open innovation policy, possibly from concerns over intellectual property rights, regulatory constraints and data privacy issues. That said, the response to COVID-19 has seen unprecedented partnerships and coordinated efforts. Education institutions have shifted en masse to online learning. Academia has adopted remote, distance learning elements within study programmes.

Indeed, organisations have adopted fluid workforces. Inundated with high demand, Amazon absorbed furloughed staff from other companies. In healthcare, hotels have repurposed spaces for quarantine, while the software company Salesforce supplied free access to technology for emergency staff and medical teams.

Innovation as a pillar of the economy

Once the pandemic passes and some semblance of business-as-usual returns, those who learned the most from our shared experience shall emerge as the future leaders of innovation to drive growth. Collaborate for best business practice. Working in dynamic teams on trial-and-error projects and iterations achieves rapid results. Business systems need to be questioned and challenged to remain effective. Governments now consider innovation a cornerstone of a thriving economy and offer substantial funding to those stepping up to push it forward.