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COVID-19 Pandemic Can Spark Business Innovation

Stay positive and do not be paralyzed

There is no doubt that the world is still suffering from the impact of COVID-19. Uncertainty of the future paralyzed business leaders and politicians into inaction. But we should not forget that many successful business stories began during times of recession, depression, chaos and crisis. Business leaders and companies used these periods as a catapult for creation and innovation.

In a crisis such as COVID-19, people and companies’ needs have changed significantly. “Priorities have shifted, and the way people and businesses operate on a daily basis has changed to cater to new needs with new services and solutions, or existing solutions offered in different ways,” says Furman University, SC (Furman). “And that is precisely why there is always so much opportunity where there is chaos and crisis.”

                “In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity” (Sun Tzu)

Let me mention some examples of innovations which are born in times of recession or depression, such as e.g. Uber and Airbnb, WhatsApp, Slack, Pinterest and Square.

Uber and Airbnb, for example, did not necessarily plan on being founded during the Recession of 2007/8, the timing worked in their favor. With so many people looking for extra income, it suddenly made sense to turn your car into a taxi, or to rent out your spare room. These ideas may have seemed crazy just a few months or years before.

Harvard Business School Working Knowledge provides some recent examples of innovation driven by the pandemic: grocery stores installing plexiglass shield at checkouts; restaurants and groceries expanding to takeout and deliveries; video conferences replacing face-to face meetings and professional consultations; and employee monitoring software ensuring productivity among teams working from home.

Even in sectors where digital and automation technologies were uncommon, the crisis led to drastic innovation. Teachers from preschool to universities digitized content and delivered it online or via phone.

How to innovate? It is inspiring to read how businesses are innovating ways to stay relevant in industries completely disrupted, if not shut down, by the pandemic and lockdown.

But how do you innovate in your business and industry? Furman provides a three-step system to innovation-

  1. Focus on your clients – identify and meet their changed needs, make their lives better and listen to them.
  2. Challenge the way you do things – develop new products or services and offer existing services in new ways.
  3. Explore the world around you for new possibilities – including the many new enabling technologies that can digitally update old ways of doing things and even extent your client-base.

“Just like a catapult, the more you get pulled back, the further and faster you can go forward,” says Furman. “When chaos happens, spend time thinking how it can be used as an opportunity for growth and innovation. This is your time to move forward”.

The right talent is a differentiator

Small businesses across the world face the challenge of keeping their best staff and skills during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that they can survive these hard times and can thrive when the economy picks up again.

It is a clear statement of successful small to medium companies that the right talent is a key differentiator to gain a competitive advantage and attain future success. The right talent is described as “giftedness, individual strength, meta-competency, high potential and high-performance workers. Such employees are a crucial and valuable element of any organization. They are the life force that drives innovation, profitability, and sustainability.

The master’s students’ paper included a quote that is worth bearing in mind when considering strategies to keep top people.

It comes from the former chairman of Citicorp, Walter Wriston, who said “Human capital will go where it is wanted, and it stay where it is well treated”

The COVID-Pandemic opened also opportunities to gain scarce skills helping the companies to become more innovative and competitive. Before lockdown, it was difficult for various companies to find people with the right skills.

Some Important Business Lessons

“Given the nature of the crisis, all hands should be on deck, all available tools should be used” (Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank).

I believe in the following:

  1. Working from home is possible

Various well-known companies notified employees that they may work from home or partly from home if they choose.

  • Understand your whole supply chain

Buchanan says it is important to understand which suppliers you are dependent on for your most critical goods and services. Do you understand how many supply options you have, and do you have plans in place for if they fail to deliver? How capable are your service providers of delivering when they are ill, trade wars kick in, or their key suppliers hit snags? What emergency procedures do you or they have?

  • Communication and crisis planning are essential

Are you able to communicate with all employees and with the media? How do you minimize the damage from a future pandemic or other drama? What systems are in place to protect employees in the event of a catastrophic incident?

  • Use the available technology

It is easy to get caught up using systems that have always been in place. In smaller businesses particularly it is common to use manual systems for various functions. 

The need to meet up has seen collaboration apps booming with Zoom, WebEx, and Microsoft Teams.

  • Build relationships with your accountant, bankers and lawyers

COVID-19 forced many companies to increase credit limits or obtain rescue loans. Accountants and bankers are overloaded with applications, are giving first preference to their current customers. Company accountants and lawyers have been working overtime in helping and or guiding their clients on seldom-used aspects of business such as suspending rent payments, delaying vendor payments, and chasing non-paying customers.

  • Broad-based skills are important

The tendency when hiring is to focus on getting in highly trained niche experts for each position. The pandemic has, however, shown us that the organizations which were able to rethink their business model and pivot quickly had a much better chance of adapting to market conditions and surviving, and these organizations were also full of employees with broad skills, emotional agility and a wide range of competencies.

It is a well-known fact that companies should constantly be innovating and ready for change; the pandemic has shown us just why. Being able to shift quickly relies on an employee base of innovative and creative thinkers who are empowered by the company culture to take risks and develop new ideas.

According to one of the world’s leading management thinkers and award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David, organizations today, “operate within unprecedented complexity resulting from many forces including technology, globalization, and strong competition. At present, organizations are also feeling the added impact of the COVID-19 crisis. All these pressures require companies to offer swift responses.”

However, she says, “organizations themselves can never be truly agile unless the people who work within them are agile.”

Author – Markus Bucher – C.O.I. Advisory Board Member and Executive Business Leader