How to maintain innovation even after business returns to 'normal'

It's incredible just how much innovation automatically happens when we are faced with an immediate and far-reaching barrier for our businesses.  

While it is true that not every business has innovated (and in fact, many have just shut down, used government grants and are merely 'waiting out' this fiasco), it is also more than fair to say that this has been one of the most intensive and impressive period's of innovation in this country's history; certainly in our living memories.

We've seen hotels, restaurants, and cafes adding takeaway services for the first time ever, creating home-cooking recipe boxes, and running pop-up kiosks for 'click and collect'. Trade-only companies have launched consumer websites and are delivering to homes for the first time. Office furniture companies are launching social distancing screens and measures to enable offices and shops to reopen. The list is endless, and we've seen loads of companies adapting to maintain at least some of their turnover, and support existing customers in gaining at least some of their current experience. The question is, how do we maintain this level of innovation once everything has returned to 'normal' and businesses are busy doing the day job?

It isn't always easy, but it is straightforward and the key is to be open to and encourage innovation at all levels. The first hurdle is in making innovation part of your 'day job' so that it is something that happens always, rather than something that happens when the going gets tough or you have time. Once you've embraced the idea of innovation, then you'll need to establish it within your culture and here's our top tips on how to do it:

  • Create the right structure within your culture: for most businesses, their KPIs, and even their strategic plans are all built around the tangible output. You do something simply because it helps to meet the goals of the business, be that income or brand awareness, or both. What you need to do is create a structure in which there is time and merit in innovating, even if it doesn't always work out. Innovation doesn't need to be large-scale - it doesn't have to drastically change the business - and you need to remember and foster the feeling that smaller, incremental innovation is valuable too. 
  • Give your innovation purpose: this might sound counterintuitive, but good innovation is one that adds or tries to add value to your organisation. You probably don't want innovation that suggests painting all the fences blue, unless there's an understanding of how it adds value to the organisation. Understand what innovation has merit within your business, for example, to add value to the customer, to extend the customer base, to improve staff retention or happiness, or a combination of many, as this will help you evaluate and implement the innovation. Finally, establish a set of guidelines around what each innovation must do - strike a balance between guiding and limiting - but then give your team free rein within these parameters. 
  • Create ownership and reduce bureaucracy: One of the things that limits innovation the most is constantly running ideas up and down the chain of command, only to have them delayed, postponed, or even canned without due consideration and process. True, you might not be able to facilitate or encourage million-pound decisions without prior approval, but there should be parameters in which it is OK for your teams to make their own decisions and push ahead with their own projects. Be clear about when they can progress an idea and when they need approval, and ensure they are clear about how and why an idea needs to work before it gets started. Employees will then have clear parameters in which to operate and know that they can progress an idea themselves on its own merit. Even better if you can link this to recognition and perhaps even rewards for those with the best ideas. 
  • Be tolerant about failure and clear about it too: not every 'failure' is detrimental to a business and it is a fear of failure that often holds people back. So their big idea might not have secured lots of extra customers, or it might not even be what the customers wanted, but it is better to foster innovation than to stamp it out because it didn't work one time. It's all about the degree of failure - if there isn't a huge financial cost and there isn't damage to the reputation, who cares if it didn't work out this time? Make sure you praise them anyway for showing innovative and entrepreneurial spirit!
  • Establish how you will maintain standards: While we have been extremely impressed by how businesses have innovated, we need to remember that we are in a much more tolerant mindset as a society at the moment. People are happy to accept delays, comfortable with the idea that their order might be split into parts, or even that there's one or two things missing, as long as you handle it right. This won't last long and when we return to 'normal', so too will consumer expectations of high standards and quick responses. You need to establish how you can try and ultimately roll-out innovations that meet your normal operating standards, so as not to risk any negative impact on your business reputation. We have certainly seen less than exemplary standards from some of the innovations - missing orders, delivery delays and human error - but we as a human collective are far more forgiving at the moment. Remember that!
  • Ask questions: Last but not least and probably the easiest one to implement, is to ask questions, always. Creating a culture where questions are asked and answered will create natural innovation with little effort. Asking how you can do something better for the client, asking how you can make your product fit a wider audience, asking how you can add extra value, will all get people thinking differently about what you already do. Innovation can come from the unlikeliest sources and asking questions is a great way to uncover the best ideas!

It seems that many businesses are viewing a return to 'normal' as a point in time when people are back in the office or the premises are back open to the public, but we believe there is a big gulf between reopening and normality. What is more likely to happen is that the after-effects of COVID will forever change how, why, and where we do business, and we will see changes in individuals' attitudes to work and attitudes to consumption. This could be a death knell for many businesses - particularly those which aren't agile and struggle to innovate - but importantly, we believe that it is more an opportunity for those who wish to take it. New markets, new customers, new sales, and new product lines are there for the taking if only you can continue to capture the essence of innovation within your existing business. 

If you need a bit more info, this old, but still brilliant article from the Harvard Business Review provides a great in-depth look at the different types of innovation within a business. Enjoy!


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