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

This article was originally published by CMO
By Nadia Cameron & Vanessa Mitchell

April 7, 2020

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.

“When the Coronavirus set in, we saw it had the scope to help out the struggling hospitality community by offering another takeaway channel, especially for home chefs,” Woodford says. “So we have fast-tracked it through into beta testing and are now signing up new suppliers daily, eager to rebuild some of their lost revenue.”

Woodford also notes ride-hailing services such as Didi, OLA and Uber are seeing up to 40 per cent decline in ridership since the COVID-19 outbreak due to less flights and more people staying home to weather out the virus.

“They have now turned to adapt their software algorithms to better position their drivers near areas of essential workers such as health-care workers and food supply chain operators who require the transport due to the reduced public transport sector,” he says. “There is a strong desire for cities to adapt, hence turning attention to software, which is quite flexible, modular and so can be adapted to help cities in crisis.”

Imber is another seeing companies starting to think differently, particularly in the manufacturing category, where brands are starting to produce products higher in demand with the materials they already have. A good example is alcohol brands like Diageo, Anheuser-Busch, Pernod Ricard and Brookie’s creating hand sanitiser.

“The things companies need to be looking for and thinking about are the frustrations and challenges people have now – their customers – which are completely different,” Imber says.

“It’s more important than ever for brands to get close to customers – although remaining 1.5m apart – and learn what are these new problems, challenges and frustrations that exist now. If you can solve those, it’s something customers will value and it will be put ahead of your competitors.”

Staten agrees understanding what is changing in people’s lives in the current environment, and what can you do to help complement such changes occurring in their lives, is critical here. And if in the process can prevent these changes from causing concerns and the disease’s spread, you’re onto a winner.

As a case in point, Staten highlights the efforts governments are taking to make sure people stay in their homes and not frequent parks, fields or other places where they will be near other people.

“The big challenge as a consumer is how do I make sure I don’t get within 6 feet of someone with this problem. How best to do that?” he asks. “One thing you could do is have that person turn on an app when they go walking with their phone. The app does the looking around them the whole time. If you have lots of people using that app, and the apps can see each other and know the person down the hallway doesn’t have the symptoms so it’s OK to be near them, you could notify both that is the case and they feel more comfortable. This would be most valuable when someone goes to the grocery store. They can be empowered.”

In Apollo’s context, customer insights often come from understanding behaviours using your app then rapidly going to market with something.

“This is the only way you can test in a real environment how you will build your app into a successful investment,” Woodford says. “Innovation is problem-solving: Finding, testing and discovering new and better ways to do make life better for people in technology and business.”

Key tips on how to innovate

For Lambert, measurable results are vital to validate innovations strategies and encourage a corporate to have the confidence to continue to do things differently.

“Without measurable and meaningful results, too many corporates sink back to BAU and execute the traditional levers for growth,” he says. “It’s also clear if your CEO and executives aren’t actively engaged, it simply won’t work.

When there is a lack of support from executives it is often displayed subtly with behaviours, such as not being engaged or supportive (32 per cent according to Slingshot’s survey) and a lack of active contribution (29 per cent). Culture is another critical factor. Some organisations are in highly regulated environments, some have run innovation initiatives before and seen little outcome, and in some there is a high turnover of staff.

The corporates doing innovation well are well resourced, clear in their strategy, have genuinely high-quality teams, good partners, and are making decisions around innovation that are having an impact on their business and culture, Lambert says.

Imber sees bigger, established brands in a great position to innovate now. “They are generally in a good position to do so – they’ve got reach, distribution channels, and ways of accessing customers en masse,” she says.

“What’s important here is building the skills for experimentation so you can run really quick and lean experiments, test your ideas, see what is working and resonating before investing lots of resources in them.”

Woodford believes companies of all sizes can make the most of the challenging times in by observing and remaining receptive to new and emerging technologies and ideologies.

“Larger companies will need to learn from the process smaller startups go through in order to keep employees and products relevant in today’s society,” he says. “For startups to succeed, they need to stay ahead of trends and consumer behaviour. This allows them to quickly grow their customer base in a relatively small time.”

Helping employees and executives see innovation is important for your company before someone else brings disruption to your market is another must for Staten. All too often, innovations have been perceived as a threat to existing business models, services and offerings.

“You have to help them understand it’s not just a new idea, it’s based off evidence you’re seeing with customers and it is absolutely going to happen and eventually to be applicable to a broader set of customers than your current offerings,” he advises.

“Once you have identified this is a market need that’s coming, if you still focus on protecting existing offerings, you have to be prepared for someone else to come up with this disruption. And then you will be disrupted not by yourself, but a third party. And that will have a broader negative financial impact on your organisation.”

Prototyping in public

Then there’s the question of how rapid innovation – and the quality of it – will be received by current customers and consumers. Several brands speaking to CMO in recent weeks noted a need to ‘dirty prototype’ or ‘prototype in public’, and to leave perfection behind in order to muck in and get something out there.

Amber believes brands will be more forgiven for trying to innovate in the COVID-19 climate. “It comes back to those problems your customers have now that need solving. If you can solve those, in an imperfect way, that is a bit ‘dirty’ they are going to appreciate that,” she says.

“Everyone knows we are all in the same position. Things suddenly got a whole lot tougher and challenging, the quicker you can get solutions you can get out there, even if they’re not perfect, the more appreciate your customers will be.”

Staten points to a growing class of innovation software platforms helping organisations better execute an innovation process that leads to product. These platforms can be used to corral ideas, help with selecting which have been verified and validated, and connect with third-parties who can help realise a minimal viable product (MVP).

“These platforms help verify what has worked, versus not worked, and what to iterate next. And once it’s been verified by the customers, these can help build the business and go-to-market plan,” he says. “This empowerment is so key to so many enterprises who were not proceeding with innovations as they didn’t know best practices or how to do it well.

“For example, Hacker Earth has built a network via universities, startups and other roles of over 4.5 million people. You can tap into these individuals when someone to help you build out a first version of ideas via hackathons. Then when you get results back of what they think is the MVP, the ones you select, you get the IP.”

The marketer’s role

As the push to innovate escalates, Imber saw marketers in a really critical leadership position.

“There are going to be a lot of people in companies that will be risk averse and simply reacting to what is going on,” she says. “What marketers can do is take a proactive approach to seeking where are the new opportunities presenting themselves in this new world, and how can we help customers in new ways.

“Typically, marketers are those closest to the customer as well, and it’s about getting in close to your customers and understanding those new problems and challenges they have in this new world that you’re well placed to solve.”