Innovating for Success after COVID19

by Pete Foley

We will beat the COVID19 virus, and innovation will play a key role in that victory.  We will find new treatments, using either new drugs, or hopefully fast-tracking reapplication of existing ones.  We will reapply existing technology to mass produce respirators. Nothing spurs innovation like a crisis, or a war, and we are in the middle of both.

How quickly we’ll achieve that victory remains to be seen, and sadly it will not be without more loss of life, social disruption, or economic agony.  I don’t want to down play how extraordinarily tough this is.  I live in Las Vegas, a city that is largely build upon tourism and entertainment, and the economic impact here already is staggering, and will go on for some time.  Even if we find a cure quickly, it will still be many, months before we return to anything even close to ‘normal’.  

But no matter how long it takes, we will emerge from this, and some of the tools that will help us are inherent in the crisis itself.  Below, I’ve capture three effects of the current crisis that I believe will ultimately help us to recover from it.  

1. Habits are Broken.  I cannot recall a moment in my lifetime when so many behaviors have been forcibly changed in such a short period of time. The normal cycle of implicit behavior is broken for a vast majority of people.  This is painful, but also a massive opportunity.  It opens the door for new and replacement behaviors, and hence innovation.  It’s complicated, as there will be confounding effects pulling behavior in different directions as we slowly return to a new normal.  For example, there will be a strong pull to return to comfortable, familiar patterns of behavior.  Moreover, there may be a pronounced flight to the familiar, as people actively seek psychological safety in nostalgia, and in behaviors and products that hark back to more emotionally comfortable times.  However, some behaviors will also have changed forever.  And the longer this goes on, the more new habits will be created.  For example, people who may have been reluctant to try telecommuting, delivery, digital shopping, remote entertainment, leisure and instruction, teleconferencing, and a host of other web based surfaces will have been forced to embrace them, creating unprecedented trial. Furthermore, the financial reality of this global crisis means many people will have been forced to reassess value, or embrace new trade offs between value and convenience.  When the dust settles, some people will move on by embracing new habits, others by returning to old ones.  But NOW is the huge window of opportunity to create new business, by going above and beyond for customers who are being forced to try out new possibilities.  If we can use this unprecedented trial to provide them with products, experiences and value that exceeds their expectations and past experience, we will keep some of them long after the crisis has passed.

One of my favorites examples of this are breweries in the UK and Florida, who are switching production from beer to hand sanitizer.  This admittedly won’t create new habits, but it is brilliant marketing, garnering global press. Likewise, Forte, one of our top Vegas restaurants, is selling gourmet meal kits, and supporting them with free online cooking classes from celebrity chef Nina Manchev.  Another example, shared by my old friend Martin Lindstrom is Hyundai’s response to the 2009 Financial crisis https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/coronavirus-playbook-martin-lindstrom/. They realized then that consumers still had funds to purchase cars, but were holding back because they were afraid of losing their jobs.  To counter this, they launched an innovative sales offer, called Hyundai Assurance – Buy any new Hyundai, and if in the next year you lose your income, we’ll let you return it.” Sales increased by double digits, and only five cars were ever returned!  They have now reinvented that approach, with a guarantee of waiving 6 months car payments if new customers lose their job.  Bottom line, there are a lot of creative ways to create a foundation for future growth, especially if you have resources that are temporarily underutilized during the current crisis. 

2. Focus on the Future.  When facing a crisis, there is always a strong temptation to look backwards, and spend time analyzing what we could or should have done to avert it, or at least be better prepared for it. And the hindsight bias means we’ll always be able to armchair quarterback our response, and see ways we could have done it better.  Of course, there is always something we can learn from past experience, but I’d argue that in the short term, our energy is far better spent looking for opportunities as we emerge from the current situation.  How can we leverage the opportunities for trial and openness to new experience created by new behaviors, new financial realities and broken habits.  There will ultimately be lessons we can learn, especially if we generalize sufficiently, but it’s unlikely to help us recover, take advantage of the post crisis reality, or help people recover. And all too often, this kind of analysis becomes a blame game and finger pointing exercise.  The winners coming out of this will be those who looked forward, not those who looked backwards.  

That said, having contingencies for generic emergencies is something that we need, both as companies and individuals.  And there will be lessons to be learned.  But when we do get around to this analysis, it’s crucial that we make actions generic, not specific. This disaster is a once in 100 years event. There is of course no guarantee that we won’t see another pandemic like this in the foreseeable future, but it is far more likely that the next Black Swan will be different.  Maybe it will be a cyber attack, maybe a terrorist event, maybe a huge natural disaster associated with climate change, crop failure, a meteor strike, war or financial crisis.  Most likely it will be something I haven’t mentioned here. If we can use this situation to learn how to better prepare for disasters in general, it will be a very good thing, but if we use it only to create readiness for the next COVID19, we’ll likely never get to use it.  And as the memory of this fades, so will the commitment to a specific contingency plan. 

3.  Don’t Waste Hard Earned Experience.   I’ve talked this before, but I think it is so important, it is worth reiterating.  As this crisis unfolded, people will have been exposed to extreme situations, been forced to make very tough decisions, take on responsibility, display agile thinking, bravery and integrity.  Natural leaders will have emerged, and creative and innovative thinkers given unprecedented opportunities to shine. Stress can depress creativity, until we reach a tipping point of nothing left to lose, when it often shines. We are well past that tipping point.  As we emerge from this, it will be key to have the agility to respond to what will be a rapidly changing landscape, but also to have the organizational flexibility to embrace the new leadership skills, leaders and innovators who have emerged.  If we try and stick them back in the box, and/or remove recently gained autonomy, they will likely go elsewhere.  We must be prepared to embrace those who thrived in the crisis.  But we’ll also need to create environments with sufficient psychological safety for those who didn’t.  A lot of people will be quite fragile after they’ve been through this, and will need support them for a while afterwards.  

Much will ultimately depend upon how long this actually lasts. But it will end, and we will recover, and the further we’ve fallen, the more opportunity there will be to rise. Remember that The Roaring Twenties emerged from the last great pandemic in 1918, and that was tagged onto WW1. We went into this with a robust global economy, so we have considerable reason to hope, we just need patience, and an innovative mindset. 

Adapted from an article previously published on LinkedIn under the title of Organizing for Success after COVID19  

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