The Covid-19 pandemic has closed shops, banks and offices. Employees are working at home. Stock markets are falling. Aeroplanes are grounded. It seems the corporate hamster wheel is slowly grinding to a halt. Yet, scratch below the surface, and these outcomes are not the full story. We’re witnessing a surge of innovation that, previously, was hard to imagine.
Companies that normally make cars or vacuum cleaners are now making much-needed ventilators. Iconic Parisian perfume brands and gin distilleries are now producing hand sanitisers. And there are numerous other examples where creativity (and desperation) have led to inspired outcomes. As demand for their traditional products has slowed or ceased, many businesses are now jostling to respond constructively to the challenges of Covid-19.
News about these innovations may come from on high, but I’d be surprised if the inspiration does. The current situation has provided the perfect opportunity for employees across many businesses, large and small, to demonstrate their innate creativity and entrepreneurial flare.
And if it’s possible now, why has the corporate world been slow to make it happen in the past? It’s not as if we haven’t been beset with other pressing crises, ranging from climate change to poverty. There are many reasons, but I’d argue that the innovation we’re witnessing today is the result of a perfect storm. Firstly, the clear and present danger of a global health crisis is challenging the role of business.
Secondly, we’re seeing a temporary suspension of traditional corporate hierarchies and accepted rules of the game. Thirdly, we’re experiencing a profound change in pace.
If you trace business back to its roots, it was predominantly about creating products and services that addressed an unmet need within, or solved a problem for, society. Examples include the need for energy to provide lighting, heat or transport; demand for food or medicine. More recently, ever-more sophisticated corporate marketing departments have convinced us to buy more “stuff” that we probably don’t need and cannot afford.
Along with bringing countries to their knees, Covid-19 is apparently bringing businesses back to basics. Secondly, employees have been given the permission to break the rules and be creative — to take a chance and suggest things that would have been considered unpalatable in normal circumstances.
Their annual objectives are now irrelevant; key performance indicators are hardly worth the paper they’re written on. And, video conferencing aside, home working means you won’t have the boss looking over your shoulder any time soon. Could these factors explain why H&M switched production at a factory to making surgical face masks? Or the reason Decathlon snorkelling masks are being converted into makeshift ventilators?
Such radical innovation may open up new market opportunities that would have otherwise remained untapped. Thirdly, the global slowdown has provided the time and headspace to be creative. The mantras of “faster, bigger, higher growth, more profitable” have been replaced by some forced business “deceleration” — a topic close to my heart. Then again, was it ever realistic to expect anyone to invent a fabulous new concept in the 65th hour of their working week?
I’m not looking to make light of the impact of the current crisis or trying to find an upside. But it has shown just what’s possible when a certain set of circumstances present themselves and temporarily lift “business as usual” constraints. Savvy leaders will realise that the lessons of today hold the key to finding new business opportunities that will help us not only cope with the crises of tomorrow, but also overcome them.
Gib Bulloch is author of The Intrapreneur: Confessions of a corporate insurgent and co-founder of the Craigberoch Business Decelerator on the Isle of Bute, which will host its first virtual event, Craigberoch LIVE this week.
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