5 Keys To Innovating A Future Of Value

Steve WunkerFebruary 9, 20215 min

We are all innovators now.

Covid-19 demanded new behaviors if companies were to survive. Speed, ongoing adaptation, and multi-dimensional innovation became necessities overnight. And it worked! Amid all its hardships, 2020 witnessed perhaps the fastest pace of innovation the world has ever seen – from new business models to new forms of customer interaction, and a great deal more.

What’s changed? Here are five key principles from the pandemic that you can embrace to sustain and keep building up your innovation strengths:

Five innovation lessons emerge from the COVID pandemic

Five innovation lessons emerge from the COVID pandemic.

1. Embrace Uncertainty Through Futurecasting

While many of us may crave stability ahead, the pace of economic, societal, and political change currently shows few signs of deceleration. In these times, gaining visibility about the future requires both concerted effort and humility.

Futurecasting – a disciplined method of determining what your company’s future can be – is a way to surmount these challenges. Through approaches we have described elsewhere, including trend analysis with scenario planning, mechanisms to determine what Covid-related behavior changes will stick, as well as the Uncertainty Matrix, you can identify both the most plausible futures as well as edge cases that create threat and opportunity. This vision of the future then establishes the context for determining what growth options to seek.

2. Innovate With A Purpose

Innovation is a means to an end, and the end should be defined for innovation to be truly impactful. Covid-19 forced organizations to pick concrete innovation goals such as making up for lost revenue when retail stores closed, adapting an offering to virtual delivery, or capitalizing on an influx of new users. We didn’t have time to be innovative just for the sake of being innovative. Innovation needed to solve tangible problems.

Before Covid-19, organizations could be lazier about their innovation mandate. They could scrape by without asking hard strategic questions, like “Should our innovation efforts be more about defending against rivals or about creating new growth?” or “Should we focus more on lowering costs, raising prices, or winning new customer types?” They could gloss over challenging conversations about how much risk they were willing to take for their innovations, and what timeframes were most important for realizing their innovation goals.

These foundational questions are critical to ensure that innovation energies focus on what truly matters. Covid-19 simplified things by forcing organizations to adapt fast to survive in the near term. That typically meant focusing on business models and customer engagement over new product introductions, and it was essential to concentrate foremost on the most important current customers. Clear enough. For the future, you need to establish where the bullseye lies and articulate your innovation purpose with rigor.

3. Think Beyond Your Product

Covid-19 taught us that innovation doesn’t just have to be (and should not just be) about new products. During Covid-19, incredible numbers of organizations reconsidered, experimented, and redesigned their businesses from the ground up.

Even as vaccines roll out and the grip of Covid-19 loosens, continue to push your organization to think outside of product innovation. Consider also how to create a repeatable process around doing so. Organizations often have well-articulated processes for developing new products, but other forms of innovation seldom have much of a process at all.

4. Experiment And Scale Fast

Humility should apply not just to projecting the future but also to assuming how innovations will take hold in the marketplace. A process of disciplined experimentation enables rapid, purposeful learning through experimenting in the real world.

If your industry doesn’t readily permit in-market experimentation, for instance because it is highly regulated, consider other ways to learn fast from real customers. To build speed, consider highly targeted experiments of particular variables using the scientific method. Experiments testing an overall proposition can be valuable too, but they take time and are often most valuable toward the end of an innovation process when the key need is to identify operational kinks.

Even after zeroing in on an idea, Covid-19 did not allow for much time to pilot. Small-scale initial efforts can be valuable, but they have a tendency to stretch on and on. Covid-19 taught organizations to move faster. Going forward, you can learn in a foothold market selected for its ability to provide quick insight and validation, all the while plotting how to scale up. The need for scale will inform what you test, such as whether customers can deploy innovations without extensive support from your organization.

The learning doesn’t stop as you scale. Ensure that you have a system to capture new findings, and set potential pivot points into your plan that force careful consideration of what you have discovered as you build momentum.

5. Spread The Competencies Through Learning-By-Doing

As we saw with Covid-19, once the pandemic forced people to act fast, they often found that organizations could move much more rapidly than previously thought. Give people the key methods and principles to innovation, then push them to move forward.

To ensure that the principles are being deployed, embed into your projects periodic checkpoints to discuss methods used, not just project progress. What did people do? What were the surprises along the way? What have they learned for the future?

The individuals involved will gain confidence in their innovation abilities, have their learning persist, and spread their knowledge to others in the organization. This is how changes really stick.

A Concluding Thought

While the pandemic has been a terrible ordeal for the world, it has underscored how we can rise to huge challenges. For the future, we can embrace newfound speed and agility to build on new types of innovation approaches which will endure.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by Stephen Wunker, Author of JOBS TO BE DONE: A Roadmap for Customer-Centered Innovation and Charlotte Desprat and Jennifer Luo Law.

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