Is Innovation a Victim of the Pandemic?

Published on June 9, 2021

There’s no question the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on nearly every aspect of life. Businesses closed, workers lost jobs, and families experienced overwhelming stress with a lack of access to childcare. But then there are some of those unforeseen casualties. In this case, I’m talking about innovation. 

A new study from Innovation Leader, a network for corporate innovators, shows that 81% of corporations are still feeling the impact of the pandemic on innovation. Moreover, 42% of those polled said the impact on innovation was extreme, with 63% likening their organizations to moving as slowly as a cruise ship or supertanker. And the larger the organization, the more challenging it is to maneuver and respond quickly.

Of course, not all impact on innovation was negative. The pandemic fueled biotech firms like Pfizer to create the first mRNA vaccines in record time. Work-management platform Asana developed 130 new features by November to help companies work remotely. But, the study shows that there’s a larger-than-ever innovation gap between those who spent the last year in fast-twitch mode and those that didn’t. Companies that planned for future growth have come out of the pandemic as leaders and not victims of the pandemic.

“The pandemic has divided large companies into two groups,” said Scott Kirsner, CEO and founder of Innovation Leader. “Those who used it as an opportunity to innovate and build stronger, digital relationships with customers, and those who were fighting fires, laying off staggers, and scrambling to shore up supply chains.”

The lackluster state of innovation is due to a lack of agility and openness to outside resources, among other problems. Respondents to the survey stated that particular behaviors and processes, such as a lack of trust in employees, infinite meetings, and a sole focus on profitability hindered innovation.

Conversely, those who work for extremely agile companies cited frequent landscape assessments, praising experimentation, and having leaders who are open to quick evaluation and change. In fact, openness to outside ideas and trends was one of the top factors driving innovation, and a lack of collaboration with external partners stunted it.

“Being open to outside ideas is a competitive advantage,” said Kirsner. “You can’t assume the smartest people all work for you. Just look at Elon Musk’s tunneling company, The Boring Company–they’re running a global competition in 2021 to find the best ideas in tunnel digging technology.”

While innovation seems like something that happens in real-time, experts suggest that it’s actually something that should be planned. Events like a pandemic have been coined “black elephants.” Though rare, a contingency plan needs to be in place. That foundation allows for innovation amid an unforeseen crisis and beyond. Not planning leads to the innovation gap we’re currently seeing.

“The overall lack of business agility both as a mindset and as an execution approach [is attributed to the lack of planning displayed by brands],” said MJV Technology CEO Mauricio Vianna. “Traditional business planning uses a more linear approach to strategy and execution that makes it harder to adapt and pivot in response to market disruption.”

So, what should companies be doing to ensure they too can become a “jet ski” versus an innovational Titanic? Well, planning for the 100-year event is key to being able to pivot, aka innovate quickly. If stuck, the report suggests that organizations acknowledge (and quantify if possible) an “innovation deficit” and identify any accomplishments achieved during the pandemic. Next, describe new short-, medium-, and long-term innovation objectives and analyze what other innovation role models in your industry are doing (especially when it comes to openness to outside ideas). Lastly, how can you spur discussion that might make a case for change?

Ultimately, none of us were immune to the effects of the pandemic, and companies suffered in many ways. But, organizations can minimize the negative impact on innovation with pre-planning, internal analysis, and openness to help from the outside. 

Jordi Lippe-McGraw is a Grit Daily contributor and multi-faceted NYC-based journalist. Her work on topics from travel to finance have been featured in the New York Times, WSJ Magazine, TODAY, Conde Nast Traveler, and she has appeared on TODAY and MSNBC for her expertise. Jordi has also traveled to more than 30 countries on all 7 continents and is a certified coach teaching people how to leave the 9-to-5 behind.

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