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How You Can Spur Innovation in an Uncertain World

While the global impact of COVID-19 has been unprecedented, and the end still isn’t in sight, there’s a reason for everyone to maintain hope. The optimism comes from our human capability to respond and adapt. People minimize risk by getting things done through remote work. When carrying out jobs online is impossible, they learn to follow public safety protocols. Businesses shift their tactics to prioritize serving the new, emerging needs of their customers.

Innovation enables us to adjust, but not everyone is open to such change. When times are good, people tend to play safe. They stick to tried-and-tested models. A prototype proposal involving ambitious plastic bonding will be turned down by most manufacturers. They will say it’s impossible. You’d have to find the right molding expert to execute your vision.

In these uncertain times, pressure can help to encourage innovation. We all have to change to survive. But learning how to harness this driving force will allow you to continue steering your business in the desired direction even as conditions seem to stabilize.

The quick pivot

Even as experts continue to delve further into the mechanism of this pandemic and research the best ways to contain its spread, businesses have taken action. Some manufacturers have repurposed their facilities and supply chains to provide more people with essential supplies such as face masks and hand sanitizer.

Other businesses have shifted their focus to specific segments of the population. Supermarkets are creating priority windows for the elderly. Tech companies are providing equipment to help facilitate communications between people who are staying at home and their loved ones in hospitals.

These changes represent the ‘low-hanging fruit’ of innovation. With small changes, you can quickly pivot your business in the right direction. On some level, it’s just about applying creative thinking to figure out how to use your existing processes in a new way.

Out with the old

However, there are underlying trends that drive those shifts in strategy. Some of these might continue even after the threat of the coronavirus has receded. Without a deeper level of understanding, you won’t recognize the need for continued change. And you might not muster enough resolve to implement adjustments on a large scale.

Placing too much emphasis on Covid-19 as a driver of change runs the risk of overlooking more significant issues. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who coined the term ‘black swan’ to describe outlier events with an extreme impact, states that this pandemic is not a black swan. Rather, our organizations, and society as a whole, had been engaged in too many risky practices over the past several years.

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For example, production schedules and supply chains that operate on a “just-in-time” basis will naturally assume constant, average outcomes. They tend to collapse when one thing goes wrong. And in our global networked economy, many things can go wrong.

This sort of systemic fragility was easy to ignore when everything was rosy. But as many epidemiologists have pointed out, we have been susceptible to global pandemics for a long time now and will continue to be vulnerable in the future.

More than ever, major innovation might have to come about by dropping old business models and completely reworking operations. Are you prepared to re-evaluate your business practices and perhaps overhaul the way you do business?

Leveraging your people

Within the business community, leaders know that organizational inertia must be overcome to implement significant changes. Size can slow you down and prevent you from making adequate adjustments promptly. Smaller companies are more agile. They have a natural ability to thrive in the face of disruption.

The caveat, though, is that your people must embody agility. Businesses can no longer afford to be overly reliant on central leadership. If yours is the only voice of significance in the company, you tend to make decisions based on a single person’s intuition. It becomes difficult to gauge the effectiveness of the strategy.

Empower your people, decentralize your operations, and make faster decisions. These are some of the emerging trends highlighted by a recent McKinsey report on how agile companies are succeeding at working with speed and scale during the pandemic era.

As a leader, perhaps the best move you can make to foster innovation both now and in the future is to flatten the hierarchy. Allow those people who interface with customers and partners to have the autonomy to make decisions and innovate.

Maintain this course even as things improve in the future. You’ll be able to continue building around your team’s talent and ideas even when today’s dangers have lifted.

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