How do we innovate in a crisis?

Apr 28, 2020 | Blog, Resources

As we navigate the challenges of Covid-19, a virus we don’t yet fully understand, we continue to adjust our lives, our routines, our plans, our finances, our businesses and even the way we educate our children. One day we will talk about pre-Covid and post-Covid, a marker that will define the year 2020. In the midst of this crisis, necessity is the mother of innovation, as large businesses adjust their systems to produce the only supplies that now matter – medical, sanitation, hygiene or food. Media has transitioned online, even as shows and interviews are completed in separate studios and locations. Churches, universities and public institutions steeped in tradition and slow to change, are now applying digital technologies to reach congregants, classrooms, customers and citizens. It is a virtual production show, as we are now in the throngs of witnessing micro, small and medium sized businesses accelerate their digital strategies for working remotely, delivering virtual services, or providing contact-less product delivery.

Covid-19 is the most important story to everyone, and whether we expected it or did not plan adequately for it, we are the generation in unchartered waters. At best, Covid-19 is inconvenient from an economic and financial standpoint; at worst, it can be fatal and demands behavioural and social changes, irrespective of the cultural sceptre.

” The latest to seize on the survival strategy is Panera Bread, which on Wednesday announced the nationwide launch of Panera Grocery selling pantry items including milk, bread and fresh produce…to help consumers get the hard-to-find items.

“This is rapid-fire innovation, this is not like business as usual. We have to move quickly to where the customer is, what the customers’ needs are.”

— Panera CEO Niren Chaudhary, (USA TODAY)

As we adjust to the distinction between essential and non-essential services, the pause in operations for many businesses is a blow to business models. We have always known that life trumps business, or did we really? Societies elevate what it values, through payment, prestige, position or power. Where did we place health workers, sanitation workers, food service workers? Even as we now rightly laud health workers as ‘frontliners’ at the battleline, let us not be lulled into artificial comfort. The rate of transmission of a virus we are still learning about demands such a high degree of personal and collective responsibility, that it should instead tell us that we are at the frontline, our families and communities are at the frontline; and health workers are our last line of defense.

The fluidity of this pandemic has created conditions akin to a medical war zone. How do businesses innovate in a crisis and brace for an onslaught of unknown drivers beyond its sphere of control? Don’t panic, point fingers or retreat; rally the troops, review and redesign:

1. Rally the troops 

Beyond an audit of your business, if you intend to stay in business, your staff, employees and independent contractors need you more than before to show up; they need to see you and hear from you. Compassionate and strategic leadership matters, to shape the vision, define the priorities and communicate the hard messages. For the entrepreneurs and business owners we engage and mentor, mindset matters more than ever, to push through the metaphorical Groundhog days of quarantine. A shift in mindset precedes a shift in ability, and ultimately a shift in action. You can’t succeed in a crisis without having a success mindset that also engages your team.

2. Review

One asset most of us are now gifted with is time. We should use this time to review strategies, test new digital tools and brainstorm activities and collaborations to address evolving needs and new market demands. Covid-19 preys on passivity. Through virtual channels, we can continue engaging our team in meaningful ways (with adjusted frequency), to review two primary questions: does our market still have the same problem that we solve? Are there new people who have the problem we solve? In a crisis, all businesses need to return to the fundamentals: What problem do we solve and who do we serve?

3. Redesign

All markets function on the basis of supply and demand. Assess current market needs, review your strengths and pivot your business model to immediately plug any cash flow leaks and be responsive to market needs. It may be hard to imagine at the moment, but one day we will reach a normal again. As our lives continue to evolve, so too will the way we do business. Are you willing to consolidate and shift even the core of your business operations?

4. Release

In a pandemic crisis, we are no longer working with traditional templates. There are too many indicators that are impossible to predict, and businesses that revert to what they know, or are slow to change, will bleed resources and diminish in relevance. In one of the greatest rearrangements of power in modern history, we are collectively housebound. While we do not know what tomorrow may bring, our response demands change and creative solutions.

In the most stable of times, change is tough. Getting an employee to vary the routine with a bi-weekly afternoon meeting is already a negotiation. But under the cover of Covid-19, change is the new normal. As we focus on flattening the curve in this pandemic crisis, we are also confronting our own mindset challenges, financial challenges and business continuity challenges. How do we innovate in a crisis? In short: Plan differently; Test faster; Improve again. An okay solution at the right time is always superior to a perfect solution at the wrong time. Communicate with suppliers/vendors, test new solutions and target new markets or different customers. 

One day when we come out of this crisis, we will reflect on the value of the MBA. If the business of business is business, the very core of its purpose is called into question. But don’t waste a crisis. If at the end of our #StayAtHome and quarantine measures, we have not developed a skill, discovered new knowledge, deepened our strengths or destroyed a poor habit, then we did not lack time, but rather discipline all along.

Although 2020 may be remembered as a year of crisis and change, the forecast may be bleak because we are still in the storm, with rolling peaks happening across the globe. However, we do have some clues about how our lives will evolve. In time, we would gratefully recognize and reward leadership qualities that are diametrically opposed to celebrity idolatry, and create space for roles and services that we previously begrudgingly accepted, neglected or dismissed. There will certainly be a next normal in the workplace, in the way we work out, socialize, communicate and congregate, but the upheaval in business tells us that we have to do a lot better with food security, but that is a whole other discourse. Our world has more problems now, and so do our markets and stakeholders. Let’s be sure to champion and deliver on our collective needs next time.

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