Keep Calm and Innovate On

Keep Calm and Innovate On
Laura Marshall Nyble
Neil Taylor
February 3, 2023

Keep Calm and Innovate On

As the world adapts to a whole new normal and economies are under significant pressure, investment in innovation is more important than ever.

One thing is certain right now – there is a lot of uncertainty about. It’s in times like these that the way we respond is critical. We’ve already seen a phenomenal response from health professionals, key workers and the public at large as we quite suddenly and dramatically had to adapt to a different way of living and working.

Organisations and businesses have had to respond very quickly – the usual timeframes for careful consideration of actions drastically shortened. On the most part we’ve seen businesses primarily focus on playing their part and ensuring their people are safe. A commendable example of how the world can come together in times of crisis.

We will look back on this time with a sense of pride at how we all came together to protect our fellow citizens and get through this.

Undoubtedly, as with every global crisis or economic downturn, there will be a lot of changes to “normal” life when we do finally return to some semblance of normality. Lots of us will recall how easy it was to arrange an interest-only 100+% mortgage with minimal, if any, real financial checks pre-2008 for example.

Life after 2020, after this pandemic, is virtually (see what I did there) guaranteed to be different. As well as embracing much more flexible working patterns and hopefully being much more prepared for anything of this nature in the future, I’m sure many will also be hoping that at least some of the environmental benefits of significantly reduced travel, power and industrial output will be long term.

At the moment though, we’re all just trying to survive – and rightly so. We know that when many businesses enter survival mode and there is so much uncertainty one of the first things to come under scrutiny is costs.

Leaders are often rewarded in difficult times by their investors for taking actions with a short term impact. Therefore spending on anything deemed unnecessary is often cut and this typically includes expenditure lines like “Innovation”, “Research and Development” and “Marketing” among others which stand out like sore thumbs.

Why keep innovating?

To understand why we need to keep innovating, we should look at what happens if we don’t.

  1. When the world comes out the other side of this crisis you’ll be selling the same thing you were selling 12 months prior. That might be ok if you sell oil or gold, but for most businesses stagnation at this level gives plenty of opportunity for competitors to move past them.
  1. An economic decline or world changing pandemic like this rips up the rule book. The classic “this is the way we’ve always done it” mindset is temporarily removed and your people and clients are now highly receptive to change and indeed are anticipating it. Not innovating, not changing in the way you’ve always wanted to would waste this precious opportunity.
  1. Beware the disrupter. Times like these, where businesses are scrambling to stabilise, give disruptors the window of opportunity they need to sneak into the market. Think back to the financial crisis of 2008 and the years that followed shortly after. Banks were reeling from the impact of that time and this gave the fintechs and challenger banks the very opportunity they needed to turn that market upside down.

Other, well documented, disrupters originating in an economic downturn:

  • Whatsapp
  • Slack
  • Uber
  • Groupon
  • Instagram
  • Square
The right kind of innovation for your business

So you need to keep innovating but what type or what level of innovation is right for you?

Like a lot of things in life, there is a sliding scale of innovation. Imagine on the extreme left you have no innovation at all followed by the most basic forms of evolution (improving the font or colour scheme to your website). As you move to the right, the innovation becomes more and more transformative until the extreme right where the innovation is revolutionary or disrupting a whole market. Think, hailing a car driven by a stranger to take you home after a night out.

There are parallel scales that run alongside the innovation scale:

  • Risk/likelihood of failure
  • Cost
  • Level of change/disruption
  • Potential reward

For an established business that needs to balance the needs of shareholders, clients and employees it’s unlikely that you will be afforded the opportunity to start disrupting the market but in the same breath it may come back to haunt you if you move to the opposite extreme.

Understand the risk tolerance of your organisation and prioritise innovation in the areas where you have the highest confidence in your customers’ willingness to embrace those innovations. For example, you may be in the parcel delivery business and when big competitors started placing lockers in convenient locations you felt like you had missed an opportunity. Right now everyone is at home, so your delivery company is probably doing well and you’re able to successfully make most deliveries first-time round. Why not invest now in a programme to install new lockers (at least catch up) or perhaps create a next gen version of the same idea whilst they’re not needed ready for when people start leaving their homes more.

If you have a bigger appetite for risk, you might be willing to take a fail-fast approach. The fail-fast strategy for innovation is one that sounds fantastic in the good times – inexpensive and it doesn’t matter too much if nothing ever comes of it. However, in the more difficult times it can seem wasteful as you could spend the whole of the time you have available trying things that don’t work – you could, though, hit the jackpot. We have to accept that true innovation is very unlikely without some form of failure along the way but perhaps now is not the time for taking too many gambles.

Perhaps your employees have more time on their hands at the moment? A fun in-between from the examples above is to run a competition for your employees to provide innovative ideas to transform the business. Ideas could be voted on and virtual workshops could foster the best ideas before one or two winners get taken into “production”. This carries very little cost initially (especially if employees are taking part in their own time or with otherwise wasted time) and is a great way to “crowdsource” ideas from your own people. It also gives you flexibility to determine how much time and investment you continue to put into the ideas later down the road. Be willing to try out some of the crazier sounding ideas – often disruptive ideas sound crazy initially.

So don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. It’s important to take sensible steps to stabilise your business but there is always a way to keep innovating. It might be much reduced from pre-crisis times, it might happen in a completely different form but whatever you do, keep calm and innovate on!