To maintain relevance in the global competitive market, many companies already focus on the development and implementation of innovations, even using digital tools. But, in times of crisis, this focus is most likely to be lost when most businesses concentrate on keeping the daily business running.
Any crisis forces us not only to quickly develop solutions to manage the incidence and its consequences, but also to transform many areas of a company. In response to the current crisis of COVID-19, companies have shifted from perfume producers to hand sanitizers, everyday fashion to production of face masks and even the big car factories have turned toward ventilator production. These changes might be temporary, or in other cases might spark new business offerings such as new analytic services in analytical labs, or a new disinfection material in a chemical company. In either case, transforming into new products and services spark benefits in the whole company such as ideation, knowledge sharing, internal communication, teamwork, and several others.
More often than desired, companies maintain and protect the status quo as much as possible in an effort to survive the crisis, with the hope that the effects are just passing by. The learning in this case might be at the level of crisis management but not in terms of innovation. Either way, the costs and efforts of the company are immense. Entering into new markets demands the acquisition of new knowledge, capabilities and resources that, beyond the benefits, represent financial expenses for the company.
How can we facilitate this transition? Theory and practice coincide on the importance of establishing an innovation process that compiles company agreements on what to do, when to do it, and how to do it: in short, to set up a clear and known procedure on how to create and implement new ideas. Straightforward, isn’t it? However, the reality is that the establishment of such a procedure and its common basis is not an easy task. It emerges from a complex pool of interconnected goals and activities, diversity of minds, already-in-place processes and strategies, enhanced by unknown markets and opportunities.
And it gets even more complicated: how to establish or maintain such an innovation process when a crisis hits? It is a default tendency to follow a protective strategy by devoting any resource to sustain the core business and cut out any activity that increases or involves uncertainty. The problem is: uncertainty is core to innovation. The big contradiction arises: how can my company survive, focusing on rescuing the present and dealing with an unbelievable uncertain future? The immediate answer is, with no extra thinking: focus on taking the core business through the crisis. However, this choice over-emphasizes the costs of new ideas over its future benefits, as the current situation demands resources and makes other investment seem not feasible. Similar to sports and exercise in busy times. Everyone acknowledges the power of exercise, although it is the first activity that is relegated in times of work overload. In the end, innovation is parked on the side.
Once again, how can we establish or maintain an innovation process under the times of crisis? This crisis, due to the limits posed to personal contact, and information and workflow has pushed the use of digital technologies. Computerized, virtual, electronic tools and resources being used to process data, that is digitization in a nutshell. In our daily life, it means we can use a computer to work, social media to network, some online games for the spare time, and the like that can be used for learning, teaching, communicating and so on. This crisis has intensified the use of such tools in a way that was expected to happen in about 20 years, and its use has invaded some spheres that were thought to be the last susceptible, for example homeschooling and birthday parties. Companies have not been able to escape this intensification either and now we see international meetings being held online, bookkeeping going paperless, and the most astonishing fact: offices and buildings empty while almost every employee works from their bedroom, kitchen or balcony.
Has this intensification of the use of digital tools reached innovation processes? Innovation processes need to be understood as the whole scenario in which new ideas are nurtured and, if not implemented, released to a practical sphere. It is important to mention that digital tools play a crucial role in the development of innovative solutions to this crisis, such as an infection tracker app or an online food exchange platform. However, the systematic implementation of digital tools into corporate innovation procedures for keeping new ideas up and running has not been well established, especially during and after a crisis like this one.
At the moment, the common practice is to hold virtual meetings and host files in the cloud, to name a few. But, how many of these now-normal practices are being used to foster team creativity, for example? Or, how have Google Calendar or Outlook been used to foster team collaboration? Or, has a virtual talk been established as the new ideation session? The answer of some companies might be ‘yes, we have done that…’ but taking a deeper look, companies in general have not yet established digital tools as a way to manage their innovation process, despite their widespread use in the company. How to do that then?
Digitization itself poses some challenges to companies. Not by coincidence, McKinsey states “transformations are hard, and digital ones are harder.” And we can add now that transformations in the middle of a crisis are even worse. Companies even struggle with the “simple” first step of deciding which tool to choose and how to use it. From there, other challenges pile up around topics such as the expertise needed in employees, leading the transformation, infrastructure and costs, implementation time and alignment to existing processes, among others in a long list.
Putting it all together: struggles with innovation processes, struggles with digital transformation, struggles in surviving a crisis. How can companies manage it all and find a way forward? One key element is keeping them all in sight. As mentioned before, innovation tends to be parked on the side when crises arrive. But as reasonable as it sounds not to spend resources on uncertain projects, in the long term, it can be counterproductive. Companies can create synergies in their transformation efforts instead of keeping the elements apart, and can make employees accountable instead of making the crisis a topic of the top management. For instance, have you devoted some minutes of one of the multiple virtual meetings by raising a question in the lines of ‘where do we stand with our innovations?’. Taking the time to remind and reflect with the employees what innovation means or its role in the company, will bring innovation to the focus and send the message of its relevance for the company. Some will be reluctant to consider dedicating time to innovation as the urgency tells them to invest all resources on the core business. It will take some time and effort to make the value of innovation tangible for surpassing the crisis.
Raising awareness and bringing innovation back to the spotlight can be a good start. Then, the focus can be placed on activities to foster motivation and boost inspiration. Transforming one formal virtual meeting into a spontaneous dialogue on new trends, common topics such as the latest rocket launch or how the coffee shop next door is offering ‘masks-to-go’ with your coffee, can be a good ice breaker. An open and informal dialogue can be used as a way to explore new thoughts, provoke new ideas, challenge new daily life situations. Once it is done regularly, it can reinforce an open-mind, idea sharing, and risk taking attitude in employees. Depending on the company and the relevance given to innovation, simple talks can be progressed towards technical topics, or internal production challenges, and can eventually transform into building teams for specific topics on innovation. Shifting the focus to future opportunities can also have side effects on bringing positive thinking and focus on solutions rather than problems.
And… where sits digitalisation in all this? As mentioned before, the idea is to bring everything together. Above, innovation and company focus have been brought together in virtual meetings. But digitization is more than that and can create even more value to a company. Thus, the opportunity lies on how to put the outcomes of a virtual innovation talk into a digital format, i.e. starting from a shared Excel or Word document to a web-based tool to support collaborative work. Some companies would not consider trying any digital tool before doing a detailed analysis of costs, pros, cons and requirements. However, one option is to start small while always having in mind that it is only a trial. Taking an experimentation approach, a company can start using any chosen tool, and by using it learning what works and what does not, what is needed and desirable. It also means to involve employees from the beginning in identifying the needs and trying solutions, and to be open to changing the approach in any part of the trial. Companies can take a modular and flexible approach with the clear goal of revitalizing the innovation process during turbulent times.
In this fast moving time, our world is permanently changing, including customer wishes and preferences. Companies are faced with the major challenge of constantly and immediately adapting to the changing conditions to remain relevant in the globalized market. Being able to rely on digital innovation management for continuously upgrading business processes will be indispensable in the future, as the current worldwide crisis has clearly shown. The current changes will not leave daily business activities unaffected and a comprehensive corporate rethinking will be necessary. Looking for and trying new tools can become a habit that will facilitate business processes, regardless of whether the company is in the middle of a crisis or can continue its normal day-to-day business as usual. The short-term investment of time in the search for suitable tools, the training of management and employees and the company-wide implementation is always rewarded with long-term savings in resources and time, as well as a competitively relevant position in the market.