Innovation from the strangest time

We have heard the word innovation a lot in the last seven weeks. We have all had to innovate personally (how we work, shop, socialise, educate) and we have applauded those businesses and organisations of every shape, size and structure who are innovating and adapting the way they function in order to survive.

But beyond all of this truly amazing and very immediate and reactive innovation, what will the impact of COVID-19 be in the long term? Have these strangest of times fostered a spirit of innovation and if so, will these innovations be ones that stick; ones which change the very nature and shape of our businesses and our society forever?

If innovation is about new things and doing things differently it is clear to see why the COVID period has served as an innovation incubator. Sal Pajwani, Group CEO of innovation company? What If! described how innovation becomes necessary in times when human dynamics change, as we are forced into situations where we have no choice but to step outside of the normal routines and ways of doing things. In this period human behaviours have shifted radically and at speed and thus businesses have had to keep pace or lose out.

As businesses have adapted to keep pace, new ways of working are also creating a fertile ground for innovation. Bas Korsten, Global CCO of Wunderman Thompson discussed how he is talking to every corner of the Wunderman Thompson global network on a much more frequent basis. The wonderful result of this is a change in the way problems are approached, because, in Bas’s words ‘the more diverse minds look at an individual problem, the richer the solutions will be.’ As Bas described it, this cross-pollination of thinking is extremely powerful. Isn’t there a fantastic irony about the fact that being unable to be present in our workspaces has resulted in us speaking more frequently both internally and with clients. The very intense, focused nature of video conference arguably also results in more dynamic and productive conversations.

Emily Chang (previously CMO for Starbucks in China) echoed this point in discussing COVID-19 as a global issue, requiring a global response, going on to say that as a result of this, ‘widespread collaboration looks like connecting dots not previously connected, often with new partners, resulting in novel solutions.’

Emerging from this moment in time, people’s attitudes will change fundamentally. Every single facet of our lives has been impacted and we have flexed accordingly. Now that we have moved forwards (at a vastly accelerated rate) is it even possible to go backwards? Take remote/flexible working, which has changed the dynamics of family life. Do people want to return to the drudgery of an in-the-office, nine to five, five days a week working life? And if not what does that mean for all those industries that service the office-working population, from fashion to food?

Bas Korsten questioned, now that we have seen the clear skies in the world and the animals running free, how do we feel about our planet and the climate crisis? Do we reconsider the number of times we fly every year and how does this impact tourism, how does it impact the way global business is done?

Sal Pajwani highlighted the significant impact of this period on the food industry and how innovation in this most important of sectors has shifted away from price and variety and towards reliability and thus supply lines. He also referenced online shopping, which pre-Covid represented a very small percentage of total grocery sales, despite having been around since Tesco pioneered it in 1996. Today the online numbers have surged and now that those new customers have entrusted their details to online and have faith in that service, how will the retailers adapt?

As Emily Chang put it, ‘innovation requires constant reinvention of the value we contribute to the world.’ If the result of this time is a fundamental shift in the way that people perceive, interact with and enjoy their world then that contribution is going to have to change. If a time of great difficulty, stress and uncertainty can bring about innovation which would have otherwise been much longer in the making, and which positively changes how we work, shop, eat, communicate and treat our planet for the long-term, therein lies a positive message for us all.