INNOVATION IN THE TIME OF COVID-19

This article follows on from my previous article “FAIL TO INNOVATE” .



What’s the traditional response from people and organisations when faced with a completely unknown and never-before-experienced-in-our-lifetime situation such as COVID-19?

Don’t move!

Stay very still, gather data and let’s see what happens before we make any decisions!

It’s Fight, Flight or Freeze.  And most organisations when faced with this high-risk environment choose to Freeze (at least for a while).  The downside of a Freeze response is that maybe your competition is not standing still along with you.

Studies have shown that companies which actively innovate during times of crisis (in the study’s case it was the 2007/8 GFC) come out of the crisis 20% better off than their competitors.  That sound good but not mindblowing.  What is compelling though, is that these same innovation-under-pressure organisations then go on to record results which are 150% better than their non-innovating competitors after 18 months!  That’s a result that is hard to ignore.

Our teams need to understand the “why” of what we are working toward.


You may be thinking to yourself that this is just a High Risk = High Reward scenario – basic economics.  But innovation doesn’t have to be High Risk!  We can make innovation Low Risk through following some basic rules and guidelines.

First up, is to ensure that we can afford to fail.  Whatever new thing we are going to try must be in a bite sized piece, and we must be willing and able to throw it away should we find it isn’t working as we expect.

Next thing is to ensure that every time we try a new thing, we take learnings from that trial and ensure that those learnings are applied to the next attempt.  This was we make our “failures” actually have a payback.

Most importantly our teams need to understand the “why” of what we are working toward, and this small “why” is normally a derivation from the big “WHY” - being the purpose of the company.

We need to ensure our teams are enabled to achieve their goals, and that they have a clear understanding of where their work sits within and interfaces to the whole organisation.

Those companies which have invested in an Agile Business Culture have found that their teams were used to managing themselves and so the shift away from micro-management within an office has had minimal effect.


We need to provide a foundation of stability within which the team can work.  A structured set of processes, cloud-based infrastructure, communications channels, effective collaboration tools, and automated reporting tools is a great start.  Then we need to listen to the team along the way as they discover new requirements.  Nothing is fire and forget in this journey to the best way of working for your team.

The optimisation of the systems described in the previous paragraph is often referred to as “Maintenance Innovation”.   Your achievement of ongoing profitability during times of upheaval can be delivered through the careful management of your fixed costs and enablement of your teams’ deliveries – both of which are the focus of Maintenance Innovation.  If you invest wisely in Maintenance Innovation, then your path is clear to deliver Transformative Innovation, especially at a time of high risk.

Those companies which have invested in Maintenance Innovation to ensure their IT systems and networks are based in the cloud to enable remote working have found the impact on their internal processes of COVID-19 to be minor. Those companies which have invested in an Agile Business Culture have found that their teams were used to managing themselves and so the shift away from micro-management within an office has had minimal effect. The investment in automation of backend processes means that these processes can now run with little effect from the virus bots can't catch COVID-19.



Richard Goyder AO (Chair of Qantas and Woodside Petroleum) says inertia and risk aversion are tempting responses to high risk environments. “As boards face increasing scrutiny of their decisions, it is vital directors don’t respond by retreating into a mindset that is so risk averse it stymies investment, innovation and creativity. The challenge is not to hunker down and become risk-averse, the challenge is to work out how you can get things done in a way that is high in integrity and has all the right sorts of values.”

So what we need in the time of COVID-19 is innovation – as the mitigation for the risk of falling behind our competition.  So really it’s no different to business as usual, and our Boards and C-Suite should take heed that a failure to innovate is one of the biggest risks to the long term health of the organisation.

At AgileXperts, our consulting focuses on generating the right approach to minimise downside and maximise the opportunity for innovation.  We can help Boards, C-Suites and Directors to unpack and understand your own definition of success in the innovation space and beyond and then work with you on your journey to finding that success.  There is no silver bullet or magic solution – every organisation is unique and complex.  It takes time, effort and commitment to achieve greatness and AgileXperts has the experience and knowledge to guide and support you on your journey.




Author: Brett Cowan, Executive Director, AgileXperts.