Avoiding Post-COVID Stasis: How Companies Can Stay Innovative Beyond the Pandemic
Necessity is the mother of invention, and in early 2020, COVID-19 necessitated unprecedented levels of invention. Schools were forced to transition to remote learning in a matter of days. Healthcare facilities adopted telemedicine systems fast enough to provide care for patients. Companies adopted work-from-home policies that kept employees connected, engaged, and creative.
A flurry of innovation ensued. The full list of COVID-era innovations is too long to print; suffice to say, the growing pervasiveness of mRNA vaccines, QR codes, online education, telehealth, and remote work arrangements is evidence of a world that proved its capability to innovate rapidly.
But, in contrast with March 2020, during September 2022 the pandemic is playing a much less central role in many of our lives. It certainly has not gone away, but the restrictions we knew during the pandemic’s darkest days have receded. For many businesses, the return to normalcy has resulted in a return to stasis — a stasis that, while comfortable, is problematic from one critical perspective: It’s not as much of a catalyst for innovation.
The Outthinker Strategy Network brought together four chief strategy officers to discuss this dilemma. Companies don’t want to lose the innovation momentum they built up during the pandemic — and they want to nurture cultures of innovation without an existential health crisis looming over them.
How can companies sustain cultures of innovation beyond COVID?
4 Tips for Nurturing a Culture of Innovation (Without COVID as a Catalyst)
Tip 1: Define the term “innovation”
The word “innovation” is often thrown around as a generic business objective, but it doesn’t always have a clear definition.
Innovation comes in three main types:
1.Internal process innovation, where a company endeavors to make all of its processes cleaner and more efficient (also called “continuous improvement”).
2.New market entry, where a company tries to make a statement in an existing market (think Walmart getting into e-commerce).
3.Category creation, where a company tries to create a market that doesn’t exist yet (like when Amazon built AWS).
Tip 2: Perform a talent assessment
With an understanding of how you need to innovate, you can begin identifying the people who will drive it. While written questionnaires can be effective, face-to-face interviews go much deeper. There’s no stronger indicator of innovativeness than seeing someone’s face light up over a possible project.
Not all of your employees will be innovation-minded; that’s perfectly fine. You will also need operationally minded people to complement the audaciousness of innovators.
Tip 3: Celebrate innovation initiatives
Simply stating that you want your company to be more innovative will not automatically turn your employees into creative powerhouses. You need to set up systems and incentives that give your employees reasons, opportunities, and rewards for innovation.
Equally important as the tournament itself were: 1. Crowning winners and 2. Congratulating all participants. Prizes and incentives motivate people, but recognition for valuable ideas can have just as deep of an impact.
Tip 4: Eradicate fear of failure
When it comes to innovative projects, the vast majority may end up as learning experiences rather than profit-generators. If that understanding is not stated up front, the employees leading innovative efforts might either fear not being able to demonstrate immediate profits or might get discouraged if their projects don’t turn into lines of business.
Revamp your innovation culture with language that takes away the negative connotations from “failure.” Redefine “failure” so that a project doesn’t have to generate profit for it to be a success.
While it’s true that nothing lights a fire under a company as much as having to innovate for survival, there are ways to infuse innovation into your culture and processes without a pandemic for a catalyst. You can continue accelerated innovation by understanding which types of innovation are most important to you, finding the people who will drive it, motivating them, and setting them up for success.