In the middle of any crisis, the leadership dilemma is always how to continue shaping the future while balancing the short-term need to navigate the current storm. The crash of 2008 was the last catalyst for step-change. Although it can’t be compared in the same light, we think the current COVID-19 pandemic will be the inflexion point many CEOs and senior teams so desperately needed.
The unknown implications of COVID-19 will undoubtedly unfold over the coming months and years, and managing the current crisis in terms of risk to life is the immediate concern. But as we begin to shift into the second phase of reaction to the pandemic, leaders must now start to consider how to react to the inevitable global downturn. And, if the first half of 2020 is indeed an inflexion point, how are CEOs and senior teams going to answer the ultimate question, “where do we go next?”
Well, if we consider that whatever happens, whatever shape the world takes, an organisation must first and foremost, remain relevant. It must also consistently and sustainably return value to itself (profit isn’t a dirty word you know), its shareholders, its people and the planet. And that means it must be a dynamic organisation, a human-centric one and an innovation-led one. Remaining relevant and driving growth means being able to create new value and that needs innovation, not just from an R&D or NPD department but from an organisation as a whole.
The challenge for many leaders is that organisation weren’t able to do this pre-pandemic and thus are now in an untenable position. As we begin the transition back to growth, organisations that lack genuine innovation capability will find themselves out-innovated. Outpaced and outmanoeuvred by competitors more adequately positioned to capitalise on condensed market demand, shifting customer needs and as yet unknown opportunities.
Research by BCG supports this by outlining the lack of real commitment to innovation pre-COVID-19 with 65% of corporate leaders, citing innovation as a top-three priority. Yet, only 45% of companies support that strategic priority with the right resources.  When nearly 75% of leaders believe they have a culture of innovation, experimentation and risk-taking but only 37% of employees agree, I would suggest there is a considerable commitment gap. 
So maybe the first question leaders should ask themselves is to what extent their innovation ambition is even reaching out beyond the top table. Perhaps it’s because 57% of companies don’t have a formal innovation process.  And even where there is a process, nearly 78% of organisations focus on incremental changes. 
The inflexion point the current crisis offers leaders shouldn’t be underestimated. The opportunity to completely reimagine an organisations’ innovation ecosystem and shift the level of innovation maturity shouldn’t be wasted. For many companies, even the shift to remote working has meant the beginning of radical culture change and the requirement for new ways of communicating, collaborating and creating should be seen by leaders as a way of energising an organisation around the new pursuit for innovation.
The ecosystem approach innovation requires means culture is one component, but the capability is the yin to cultures yang. The challenge we see in our work is that for many global corporations, the foundations for innovation capability and culture simply aren’t there. We see too many clients who haven’t even defined innovation, let alone developed an innovation strategy, two fundamental components of innovation maturity. Without having an aligning innovation strategy and corporate growth strategy is impossible to derive a return on a companies innovation investment, and one of the main reasons why so many innovation programmes fail, innovation maturity is still low, and thus, innovation theatre prevails.
Having worked with leadership teams around the world to develop innovation strategies, it’s clear that the traditional method of creating a strategy based on projecting forward from today is too heavily influenced by the realities of the current timeframe. This is especially true in times of crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic being a perfect example.
Asking senior teams to envisage a bold future, for many is too big a question and the ‘blank sheet of paper’ proves to unconstrained. Ironically, we think the answer lies in the value of constraints.
Whilst many leaders find it difficult to imagine a future scenario 5 or 10 years out, we’ve found that getting alignment on just how far out a senior team think they can build a picture of the world and how it might unfold (a hypothesis) can serve as the stepping stone to building that longer-term vision of the future. The key we’ve found is to use the stepping stone to help build potential scenarios that can be explored. We do this by getting senior teams to build a hypothesis that they are comfortable has a high enough degree of certainty to unfold over a given timeframe and then we bring it to life. What are customers now doing, what needs are now being met and more importantly, which are not? What does the organisation look and feel like, how has thinking shifted and what skills and capabilities are now needed that weren’t previously?
What we’ve now done is shifted thinking and perspective into a staging point between the present and the future. Now, with a new perspective, unshackled from the current context, we shift thinking towards a visionary, aspirational and bold future.
We genuinely believe tomorrow’s innovation leaders will be made today. So, talk to us about AIM (Assessment for Innovation Maturity) and how we’re helping global leaders understand their current innovation ecosystem and develop innovation-led strategies for the post-COVID-19 world.
This article was previously published on Outcome.