How your company can innovate its way through the COVID-19 crisis

The current global pandemic has triggered a need for more organisations to innovate their way to surival. We look at what it find the way forward


Ever heard that saying, “Necessity is the mother of invention”? Well, the COVID-19 crisis is the very mother of situations organisations and marketers must innovate their way through right now.

“There has never been a more critical time to innovate and look at things differently than there is now, because the world has completely changed,” founder of innovation consultancy Inventium, Dr Amantha Imber, tells CMO. “If you stick your head in the sand and fail to innovate, probably the only thing that’s guaranteed is you won’t survive this crisis.”  

The reasons are blatantly apparent. Whole industries and categories are being decimated and disrupted by the extreme measures with which governments worldwide are trying to combat the spread of the coronavirus. Just think of the travel providers and airlines, retailers, restaurants, pubs and cafes, cultural institutions and artists, small and local businesses, sporting codes and media companies being forced to shut down or dramatically pivot what they do to survive through a lockdown period of unknown duration.

Then there are sectors in the hot seat providing essential services – from the telecoms and utility companies to supermarkets, supply and logistics providers and importantly, healthcare and manufacturing. Faced with exponential increases in demand, unprecedented challenges in maintaining workforces increasingly working from home, and panic buying of their goods and services, many are having to think well outside the box, partner and scramble in order to fulfil the needs of customers and consumers.

“Innovation is so important right now given the financial impact so many companies are suffering as a result of the crisis,” Forrester principal analyst serving CIOs, James Staten, comments.

“Many have had to reposition themselves so if this pandemic continues on throughout the year, they are viewed as companies who have moved beyond this concern. Or if they are prevented from moving on, they’re striving to drive initiatives that can lead to this crisis being dealt with faster.”  

As Appello Solutions founder and CEO, Cameron Woodford, puts it, society generally adopts new ways of doing things in a slow and cautious manner. Appello, which designs and develops a wide range of mobile apps for small startups through to larger corporations, has found a strong driving force for innovation always follows a strong reason for the change. Just think digital connectivity and disruption.

“Sometimes a crisis can help to speed up that process by forcing us to apply those new ideas in a practical way,” Woodford says. “Change in a time of a crisis happens fast; therefore, technology, ideas and innovation have to change and evolve at the same pace.

“Take remote schooling. This idea has been around for years but was never really adopted at scale; there were never enough teachers or students at home for it to be properly tested and applied. However, now that schools are closed, education has to continue... Therefore, remote education and schooling is now extremely useful.”

Woodford agrees the outbreak of COVID-19 is triggering a need to push the boundaries of innovation. “Or did it just speed up what was already due to occur eventually?” he asks.

“I do believe when the virus is gone, some elements of the newly enhanced remote schooling solution will remain, and will continue to advance at a similar pace.”

Gearing up to innovate

Slingshot CEO and founder, Craig Lambert, said the COVID-19 crisis is absolutely unprecedented and many industries and organisations are having to respond in innovative ways to give themselves the best opportunity to survive. 

“I do think you will see innovation become necessary as the market forces and consumer behaviour change,” the startup accelerator chief tells CMO.

But while recognising innovation as vital, the reality is most organisations struggle knowing how to innovate. In its latest research initiative, Innovation for Impact, Slingshot found a big gap between the willingness to innovate, execution roadblocks and outcomes to deliver lasting impact.

Slingshot’s qualitative and quantitative research surveyed 300 senior innovation managers across Australia. It found many business leaders believe they still don’t have the capability and/or capacity to deliver innovation to drive real and lasting business value.

“Despite best efforts from many corporate businesses, there’s a lack of real commitment to innovate, and poor awareness about how best to tackle it,” Lambert says. “Innovation programs have to move the needle for businesses. But it is clear corporate innovation is something many sectors still grapple with.

“Many organisations understand innovation well, but I think there’s an industry wide awareness gap about what is working and how best to begin the process. It’s one thing for a board to agree innovation is needed, but unless it is actioned effectively and measured reliably, material outcomes with real, lasting impact are limited.” 

Notably, eight in 10 innovation leaders see a gap between linking innovation activity and outcome. Other common inhibitors are a lack of c-suite buy in, being risk averse, and the inability to properly measure results.

“Risk, however, is not typically in the c-suite desire to ‘explore’ innovation options. It lies very much in attempting to execute,” Lambert continues. “Risk mitigation is built very deeply into large corporates in areas such as legal, procurement, decision making frameworks and employee behaviour. In getting a corporate to move quickly and decisively, many opportunities get bogged down in their corporate risk structure. We have seen many high-value opportunities die in the contract negotiation process, for example.”

A whopper challenge Forrester finds most companies struggling with when pursuing innovation is a lack of action.

“Typically, companies will do an ideation campaign, where they reach out and ask employees to help solve what seems to be a problem by coming up with ideas on what they could do. But then they don’t act on those ideas at all,” Staten says. “That doesn’t make participants feel important. In fact, overall, it’s discouraging.”

The other key is to open innovation – something Staten says more and more companies need to foster, particularly in the current crisis.

“Unfortunately, most companies limit their innovation to their R&D teams and if they do extend beyond that, they typically only involve people working for their companies,” he continues. “The very best innovations come when you involve third-party partners who have broader views of what your customers’ needs are, and who can help to co-develop innovation and bring expertise in things you don’t have inside your company.

“That’s why it’s so great we’re seeing so many health firms partnering with technology and non-health companies right now.”

The very best innovations come when you involve third-party partners who have broader views of what your customers’ needs are, and who can help to co-develop innovation and bring expertise in things you don’t have inside your company

Forrester's James Staten


A US example Staten points to is the ‘COVID-19 Healthcare Coalition’, an open innovation program started by the Mayo Clinic. The hospital has partnered with Amazon Web Services, Microsoft, Salesforce, University of California Healthcare as well as a broad array of startups to try and give people more visibility on virus’ impact and ways of minimising their risk.

“What they are doing is sharing the information they have about what is going on with the disease, where it’s coming from, what people think can help them solve this, and getting companies to work on things we can do better to give people more visibility into what will help people shield them,” Staten explains.

One innovation the coalition is working with Amazon on is using the plethora of Alexa devices now in people’s homes to let consumers ask questions and hear back exactly what they should be doing.

“The aim is to minimise worry about running into the problem. And when this goes away, we know they will be another one in the future, so this is also about making sure people are better protected from it next time,” Staten says.   

UP next: Innovating your way through the current crisis, key tips and the marketer's role

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