May 19, 2020

Corporate innovation needs to avoid the Covid backlash

Coronavirus has hugely accelerated the need to find new ways of working. But if companies plunge into these without planning, it will go horribly wrong.

Kimberly Eynon

6 min read

Spark Works is a Swiss innovation consultancy working with customers like Allianz, Swiss Re and Valora, and with an affiliation with ETH Zurich, the Swiss technical school. Spark Works is a big fan of human-centred design, where companies put the customer at the centre of their planning (seemingly obvious, but rare enough that there is a whole school of thought behind it).

Spark Works partners Linda Armbruster and Alan Cabello say they see Covid-19 as a big accelerator for bringing about new ways of working. But they are worried that if companies fail to plan properly for these changes, projects will fail and there could be a big backlash against corporate innovation.

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How do you define ‘innovation’ and how do you best describe your job?

Innovation is a verb. The action of conceiving, developing and bringing to someone, something novel they value. We believe our job as innovation consultants is not just to fish, but teach our clients to fish. That means enabling organisations, teams and individual employees to get into action by learning the right mindset, processes and tools to drive innovation within their company.

What do you think will be the biggest change in your industry in a post-Covid-19 world?
Covid-19 acted as an accelerator.

It brought the much-hyped “future of work” to the present. In some cases, we liked it, in others not so much. But nobody can deny that Covid-19 acted as an accelerator for processes and communication digitalisation and new ways of working, among other things. As an innovation consultancy firm, we are excited for these changes. As a human-centred innovation consultancy firm, we hope that soon we take a moment to think about how many of these changes satisfy or support human needs. This “reverse engineering” will likely keep us busy for a while after the pandemic

What is your best communication or corporate storytelling tool when trying to get buy-in from corporations?

Innovation is a fuzzy business. When tackling today’s challenges we are dealing with unknown systems, emerging tasks and open solutions. Instead of traditional planning logic this requires an explorative process, so the first step is trust and relationship building. Then it is about convincing them that they can be innovators themselves, our vision is only to help spark the change for them to become self-sustaining innovators.

How do you challenge yourself and your team to ‘think outside the box’?

The variety and speed at which new projects and clients come through the door keeps us very agile. Although we use a similar human-centric mindset, process and tool box, no two projects are ever alike. We are also lucky to work and have access to the latest research in our field, a variety of technological advances and a steady flow of curious students through our activities at Spark Labs at ETH Zurich (the top Swiss technical university and ranked number six in the world).

What is currently not working in corporate innovation?
When the crisis is over, there could be a big negative reaction towards corporate innovation.

Two things come to mind. First, leadership alignment and clear strategy are often lacking in corporate innovation. When this is the case, times of crisis only make this more evident and lead to further paralysis out of fear.

Second, if the job of understanding underlying issues and exploring potential solutions has not been done beforehand, it becomes difficult to make the fast decisions required in a crisis. The decisions are unlikely to be sustainable or may end up being counterproductive. Then, when the crisis is over, there could be a big negative reaction toward corporate innovation.

What advice would you give to any heads of innovation during Covid-19?

Your time to shine is now. If you have done your homework before, the opportunity to get quick decisions to explore new solutions has never been greater. If you have not done your homework, find help and hurry before that window of opportunity closes.

Creativity is not a matter of human nature,  it is a reaction to context.

In the field of innovation, we often say that true opportunity for change or experimentation only happens when the ship is sinking or the platform is burning. I meet frustrated innovation managers regularly, who will often say: ‘It is hard to get people to want to change or try, we are simply doing too well, the business is going great and innovation is someone’s pet project just to tick the box’. Creativity or lack of it, is not a matter of human nature it is simply a reaction to context. We have lived in a very safe, comfortable and steady environment… until now.

Innovation managers, this is your time to shine. Let’s face it, we are still extremely lucky and safe, but are in a situation where most people are wondering what to do now. Top managers are trying to address challenges, where you no longer have to convince them that business as usual isn’t the solution… because it clearly isn’t. This is your opportunity to look through your own pile of junk, get some duct tape and start experimenting. The need for innovation has never been so clear, the cost of failure has never been so low, and the potential impact of success never so high. If not now, then when?

How do innovation teams need to rethink their role in response to the crisis?

Innovation teams should probably be focusing on two things at the moment: solving immediate issues resulting from the current situation and preparing to tackle the issues that can be foreseen to come after the crisis.

Innovation teams are generally looking for areas of opportunity to innovate, the crisis has given them several new spaces, some very clear needs and a sense of urgency from top management that is rarely seen.

How do you convince companies, who may be shutting down any operation they see as peripheral, that the innovation function is essential?

If innovation managers and teams manage to show their potential throughout the current situation, their function should actually become essential.

In cases where companies can manage to go back to normal after the crisis, having supported through the crisis should have created opportunities to gain a seat at the table of the decision-makers.

In the case where companies are faced with a continued economic crisis, digitalisation and new business models may be the only way to survive. In this case, the internal innovation team is ideally placed, able to offer advice on the new technology while having an in-depth understanding of the company.

What book has been most helpful to you in thinking about corporate innovation?

I do not think books are often the best format to learn about innovation, I believe well curated articles are generally better. But there are some great ones on areas around innovation. One I particularly like is Adam Grant’s “Originals: How non-conformists move the world”. He gives some great examples of how people can succeed against adversity, what makes others tick and how creativity can be nurtured. It even has a couple of great tips for parents and their children.