I have often heard the expression “the best time to innovate is during times of crisis.” Personally, I do not fully agree with this statement.
It is certainly true that in times of crisis we become more creative, more open to trying out new things, or more pressured to do so. In times of crisis we are already out of our comfort zones and it is easier for us to overcome inertia. Last but not least, in times of crisis our senses are sharper and we are much more motivated to accept alternatives. “It works” just because “we’ve always done it this way” no longer seems to be an option.
But crises are also atypical moments for the subsequent evolution of things. In a crisis, much of what is happening is momentary, without generating behaviors which are sustainable on the long term. People are taken out of their comfort zone, don’t know what will happen next and don’t know what to expect, so they act very differently: from their prior way of doing things, but also from the way they will do things in the long run. Last but not least, crises are moments of contraction, in which the financial resources available to innovate are limited, and the availability of those who have the power to allocate them relatively low.
Even though it sounds nice, it is very difficult for a company to innovate in the midst of a crisis. Long-term consumption trends are still difficult to anticipate, changes are underway and their direction is not always clear, and although people’s fundamental needs remain unchanged in the long run, the ways in which they fulfil them depends a lot on the context, the availability of resources, and the restrictions imposed by each type of crisis. But when the intensity of the crisis is diluting, the situation starts to change again, and new trends become much more obvious.
So it is natural to ask ourselves: is crisis really the best time for innovation?
I think it is a better time than during a state of well-being, apathy and inertia, but not as good as the moment of exit from a crisis, when there already is a better outlook on the future, trends are outlined in a much clearer way, and resources are considerably easier to access. We have seen many “innovative” ideas born during times of crisis due to various restrictions, but these are not sustainable as a long-term business once the restrictions are lifted (for example protection shields for aircraft seats). Therefore, companies who based their strategy solely on this period’s trends, without looking further into the future, may soon encounter a problem.
The transition, an even better time for innovation than the crisis
If 2020 was definitely a year of crisis, 2021 will certainly be a year of transition.
We don’t have as many unknowns as in 2020, we already have relatively clear clues about the steps and stages of “the return”, but at the same time we all understood that we will not be returning to the “old normal” most people hoped for at the beginning of the crisis. Instead, there will be a “new normal”, which is currently starting to take shape more and more clearly.
In my opinion, this is the best time for innovation. The transition, not the crisis. The crisis moment may be “too early”, but the post-transition moment may be “too late”.
The transition, by definition, is the moment of movement from “something” to “something else”. This means that we start to have clear indicators about “what will happen”, given that we have the curiosity to investigate and understand, and we can act accordingly. But transition is not only the “best time” for innovation, it is also the most critical. The companies that will act proactively at this time will be the long-term winners. Those who remain inert will risk being phased out of the market entirely in the coming years.
The world after 2021 will be different than the one before 2019. But it will also certainly be different from what we have seen in 2020.
To take the most obvious example: work relations. It is obvious that they have changed radically during this crisis. The appetite for remote work has increased, as has the willingness of companies to accept this way of working. But with the lifting of restrictions, even if part of this trend continues, it will not be as pronounced as it is today. Many of those who work remotely today will continue to do so, but many will prefer to return to the office, at least partially. A large part of the companies will maintain a flexibility regarding the way of working, but for many of them additional rigor will be applied compared to the crisis period. In April-May, in the midst of the crisis, these things were very unclear and many presumptions made then are no longer valid today. But now the fog is lifting.
Moreover, the crisis has accelerated people’s appetite for the online environment and its accessibility. Even my mother, who is retired and lives in the countryside, is now doing her shopping online and is very happy about it. Consumer behavior has undergone fundamental changes and many of them will dictate the trends of the future. Competition will be fiercer than ever, because this crisis has taught all of us that we can access products or services from any corner of the country or the world, just a click away. Therefore, geographical advantages will become less and less significant, and the attractiveness of companies’ products or services will be more and more dictated by completely different criteria. It is essential for companies to quickly understand what these criteria are.
2021 is a critical year for any company that will want to survive, but especially grow in the new reality. Unlike the 2008 crisis, which was mainly a financial crisis, we have now had a health crisis, so financial resources are still available and ready to be accessed. Private savings among households are higher than ever, and companies, in turn, have also frozen parts of their budgets for fear of the crisis, and those budgets are now ready to be used.
Last but not least, we are heading towards a world with more educated and demanding consumers for all types of services, who are waiting to be served by companies with a much more “human-centric” mindset.
What should we do?
New consumer trends are already beginning to take shape. We have the vaccine, we have a much clearer horizon for the recovery from the crisis, so we have entered the transition phase to the “new normal”. Moreover, there are financial resources ready to be accessed. This is the perfect time for innovation!
The crisis has broken the old patterns and stimulated the appetite for new ones. At the same time uncertainty is dissipating, making it possible to already plan for the future. This is the time when companies should focus their efforts and resources on innovation and invest very quickly in high-quality market research in order to understand the new expectations and post-crisis behavior of their customers. But there is no need to reinvent the wheel.
Innovation is not a miracle, nor an activity intended exclusively for the creative or talented.
In innovation there are clearly-defined and verified methods and tools, and at the same time a strong amount of rigor. Therefore, companies that want to move quickly and skillfully through the new reality should use new and efficient methods, such as Jobs-To-Be-Done (JTBD) & Outcome Driven Innovation (ODI), to deeply understand the outcomes desired by customers, and then build new products and services by identifying the most innovative solutions to meet these needs. For the entirety of this process, they can also use efficient end-to-end frameworks for innovation such as Design Thinking (DT).
Some say “Never waste a crisis.” I would rephrase: “Never waste a period of transition.” Whereas in a crisis you have legitimate excuses for not acting quickly, during a transition period not only do you no longer have excuses, but they will also certainly serve you no use when you realize that you are too late in the game.
In my opinion, 2021 will be the most suitable year for innovation, certainly the best of this decade. Don’t waste it!