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3 ways leaders should pursue breakthrough innovation during a crisis

February 6, 2021

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The COVID-19 pandemic has become an innovation accelerator, igniting a wave of creative problem-solving within organisations in every industry. Resilient companies have quickly adapted to changing market needs and trends and have engaged in continuous learning to survive. But to truly succeed and rise above competitors, companies must embrace “breakthrough innovation.”

What is breakthrough innovation? It’s a new way of attacking an old problem that leads to products or services that can fundamentally change the outlook of a business, industry or market. Typically, it’s not a single solution but rather the cumulative result of sustained, incremental attempts.

Some examples of companies that drive breakthrough innovation include SpaceX, the leader in commercial space; Airbnb, which expanded the hospitality industry’s capabilities; and Salesforce, an organisation that changed management and client relation software through emerging trends in technology.

In the modern business environment, breakthrough innovation is no longer solely the mandate of research and development departments.

In the modern business environment, breakthrough innovation is no longer solely the mandate of research and development departments. Rather, it’s something that technology businesses must weave into the fabric of their organisations or risk becoming obsolete.

It may be tempting to slow down innovation efforts during the pandemic, but this is the best time to double down. There’s no risk of rocking the proverbial boat if the storm has already hit.

Time for a change

In the midst of heightened uncertainty, technology business leaders are often inclined to place their primary focus on operations as they look to cut costs and maximise profit margins. However, it’s exactly these circumstances in which innovation should become a strategic priority.

The constraints and pressures that accompany uncertain times can reveal new opportunities and challenges that force teams to think differently. The most successful companies – the ones that emerge stronger after crises – reject the status quo and adopt an anti-fragile mindset. They see opportunity in the face of failure and defeat.

For example, leading up to the Great Recession, Ford was plagued by toxic internal politics that hampered its core automaking function. In 2007, the company’s executive chairman, Bill Ford Jr., was forced to pledge the iconic Ford oval as collateral for a financing package that would help the company survive.

This risk inspired a renewed focus on innovation that helped the company regain its position as an industry leader. Without the threat presented by the financial crash, Ford likely would’ve continued to stagnate.

Times of uncertainty call for more risk-taking.

Times of uncertainty call for more risk-taking. I once had a client who was on the edge of rolling out a solution that could save their clients time and money and greatly contribute to an improved operating environment. As they began to roll it out, an unexpected event shut down operations for everyone in the industry for a significant length of time.

Rather than closing down shop, the client took this period to redouble their efforts and make the next level of improvement to the innovation. When their operations resumed, they had advanced far beyond any competitors.

To see a similar success story, you must emphasise transformation over restriction. You can do this by following the three-step journey for breakthrough innovation:

Step #1: Strengthen your core business

Like Bill Ford Jr., you should navigate the current crisis by focusing on what your company does best. As you evaluate your core competencies, try to identify inefficiencies you could eliminate with technology. These are the types of resource sinkholes discoverable in every organisation – within supply chains, production processes, project workflows, etc. – if you just look hard enough.

Most leaders probably don’t have to look that hard to find aspects of their technology businesses that could be improved. They know exactly where the problems are, but actually addressing these problems isn’t risk-free. Technology solutions don’t always yield immediate ROI, and some never pan out, making them far less palatable when resources are already tight.

Evaluate which three to five changes would improve your technology business offerings or workflows the most.

But if you’re already in the midst of a storm, there may be little left to lose. If there’s a chance you can come out on top and shape the future of your industry, why wouldn’t you rock the boat?

Evaluate which three to five changes would improve your technology business offerings or workflows the most. Once you’ve narrowed down some possibilities, rank them by risk. Select two – one with high risk and one with low risk – to explore further.

Step #2: Uncover new opportunities and potential solutions

Every enduring crisis creates new problems, forcing changes to our daily routines. Some of these changes are temporary, but others are profound and permanent. They might seem alarming at first, but it all depends on your perspective. Do you consider the changes of crises or opportunities?

If you’re searching for areas to apply new ways of thinking, start with new problems. Tackle challenges associated with the abrupt shift to remote work or the response to COVID-19, for instance, to enact creative problem-solving. Some of the solutions you devise during these exercises might actually be viable (or even profitable).

Additionally, emerging technologies such as blockchain, AI, machine learning, cloud computing, quantum computing, 5G, virtual and augmented reality, nanorobotics and many other fields are ripe for breakthrough innovation. If you brainstorm a way to incorporate these technologies into your solutions, you might discover and create new products, services or business models.

Step #3: Make innovation an organisation-wide objective

Everyone on your team would understand if you decided to cut back on investments in research and development, new technology and new personnel during the pandemic. There’s a chance you already have. After all, you need to survive this crisis.

But a survival mindset won’t drive breakthrough innovation. Fearing failure and disruption during tumultuous times will set you back further because it’ll prevent you from pivoting accordingly. Instead, take up an anti-fragile mindset and promote innovation companywide. Challenge every team member to think differently about strategies and processes. Now is not the time to say, “We’ve always done it this way.”

Take up an anti-fragile mindset and promote innovation companywide.

I worked with a group that had a strong technical solution for their customers’ problems that was well-regarded in their industry. However, the industry was soon disrupted by new challenges and a demand for more flexibility.

The group retracted into the apparent safety of its existing solutions instead of embracing the risk and demanding territory for successful innovation. As a result, they saw customer engagement plateau as their customers looked elsewhere for more innovative solutions.

Make sure your entire team knows what your goal is and how to work toward it. This is especially important now when most of your workforce is likely remote. Clearly communicate your objectives and invest in the training, personnel and collaboration tools your team needs to actualise them. Don’t try to control or centralise their efforts. It won’t be perfect, but the action is what matters most.

Eventually, the pandemic will dissipate. Don’t let the fear of rocking the boat be an excuse to ignore the pursuit of innovation. If you do, you might find that once the storm passes, the “next normal” won’t be as easy to navigate.

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