Wartime often leads to dramatic increases in levels of innovation – just think of radar, jet engines and penicillin. The Covid-19 pandemic has created an environment that displays many wartime-like characteristics and, as a consequence, we have seen many examples of successful innovation happening at speed and at scale. But why can’t such innovations happen in more ‘normal’ circumstances?
Throughout the pandemic, we have seen numerous cases of extraordinary responses to urgent needs. We have seen new healthcare products – from ventilators to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) – being developed at high speed and large scale. We have seen companies transforming their business models to allow them to create and capture value within this ‘new normal’, which seems to change on an almost daily basis. We have seen increased use of digital tools to support the process of innovation through accelerating collaboration between geographically separated teams. We have seen the scaleup of vaccine testing, production and distribution at unprecedented speed. In so many different contexts, we have seen the commonly experienced barriers to innovation collapse.
These common barriers to innovation are typically grouped around issues of understanding customers and markets, the newness of the technology/solution, ensuring the value is captured, product strategy and planning, and managing the process. Huge amounts of effort are deployed to overcome these barriers to help ensure the success of new products and services, yet most firms still find it incredibly difficult to be consistently good at innovation. At the heart of this sits the tensions associated with managing ‘ambidexterity’ – the ability to do new and risky things (exploration) while also maintaining the regular, tried and tested business activities (exploitation). Yet during Covid-19 we have seen examples of organisations of all sizes finding ways to overcome this tension. What is it that they have managed to do?
The answer to that question is complicated, but some of the things we can see from innovation projects implemented during Covid-19 include the following:
- Compelling vision: A great example can be seen in the UK’s ‘Ventilator Challenge’ where a consortium of fifty companies delivered an estimated ten years’ worth of normal ventilator production within the space of three months. People involved in this talk of the vital role of a single, compelling, easily communicable message about the market need that helped all involved to be motivated to push through the inevitable barriers to achieving that extraordinary goal.
- Willingness to use new tools: Digital remote collaboration tools have been around for many years, but their use had not been as widespread as many had anticipated. As a result of the lockdowns, the use of these digital tools increased exponentially. While some firms found this to be a source of friction to normal activities, others found ways to see these as a tool for enhancing collaboration and trying new things. For example, the use of Augmented Reality (AR) technologies allowed 3,500 engineers from different sectors, spread across the UK, to be trained in near real-time to develop skills to assemble medical devices.
- Use of ‘boundary spanners’: Innovation within complex environments such as healthcare requires knowledge drawn from multiple different domains, and in particular the links between product, manufacturing process, and regulatory environment. With such high levels of uncertainty and rapid change as witnessed during Covid-19, the value of key individuals able to span different domains to ensure everyone knew what they needed to know at the right time became enormously valuable.
- Devolved leadership: Analysis of the innovation projects during Covid-19 also showed how the use of devolved leadership models, which allow decision-making “at the point of greatest knowledge” rather than more traditional hierarchies, helped avoid delays and supported the acceleration of innovation project outcomes.
So why can’t we deploy these techniques all the time? Or do you need to ‘fake a crisis’ to get things moving? Well, there are examples of where some of these approaches are commonly used – think of examples from professional sport such as Formula 1, where every member of every team understands there is the clear compelling goal of winning , and where there are the budgets and willingness to try all new possible approaches to get ‘the edge’ over the competition. But for most organisations, innovation remains really tough: the problem of managing ambidexterity, and of maintaining momentum for new, challenging projects when there isn’t such a powerful single overarching compelling goal can override the best intentions and slow down progress.