How to innovate in the post-pandemic normal

In March this year, Pilotfish celebrated its 20th birthday using a live video stream to connect our teams in Amsterdam, Berlin, and Taipei. We popped 3 champagne bottles and thanked our wonderful staff for their valuable contributions. Twenty years is a big deal. We are really proud of reaching this milestone and grateful to all the Pilotfish employees, clients, and partners that have helped us to grow into a thriving global innovation agency.

In Taipei, the celebrations continued at a restaurant, thanks to Taiwan’s stringent efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus. During the pandemic, Taiwan has largely implemented highly successful Covid-19 containment measures, with strict border controls and a ban on foreign visitors saving many lives, while allowing society to remain more open.

The country learned lessons from the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak of 2003 and offered an organized and rapid response to the spread of the coronavirus. By contrast, other societies around the globe struggled to coordinate contact tracing, regulate quarantines, share information effectively between different state agencies and manage public communication campaigns. These countries went in and out of lockdowns and experienced their hardest economic shocks since World War Two, while more than three million people lost their lives with Covid-19. Taiwan escaped a large death toll, although a recent spike in cases has revealed some weaknesses in the nation’s internationally lauded efforts to contain the spread of the virus.

Despite the many challenges of the pandemic, it has also been a catalyst for innovation and different ways of working. Usually, changing the behavior of the masses is hard and takes a long time. Yet thinking outside the box, and reinventing how we think about ourselves, our jobs, our communities, and our social lives has become essential for our survival.

Technology has been at the heart of most of these changes. It has helped to offer digital solutions to businesses, governments, organizations, and communities, to help them respond to a global health threat. In hindsight, it is impressive to see how quickly people mastered the new reality and how organizations applied new working methods and new tools to gather virtual teams to collaborate and execute their tasks. When Covid-19 forced physical shops to close and consumers to stay at home, online retailers, specifically Amazon, were in a prime position to capitalize. Amazon’s profits have increased by nearly 200 percent since the start of the pandemic. Zoom jumped from facilitating 10 million daily video meetings in December 2019 to 200 million daily meetings in March 2020. Apple posted record revenues of $89.6 billion during the first quarter of 2021, up 54 percent compared to the same period last year, as consumers rushed to upgrade their digital devices as they spent more time online.

According to recent research conducted by McKinsey, the majority of executives surveyed reported that their companies were able to adopt digital changes 20 to 25 times faster than they would have expected prior to the pandemic. In the area of remote working specifically, these respondents thought that their businesses were able to implement solutions 40 times faster than they would have anticipated. Before Covid-19, over half of businesses thought that a lack of prioritization was the leading reason why new digital transformation tools weren’t being adopted. When the pandemic forced organizations to make digitalization a top priority, they were able to do so at lightning speed. Meanwhile, digital technologies also helped us to find new ways to relax, socialize and exercise from home, many of which are likely to continue (at least some of the time) as we transition into the post-pandemic era.

At Pilotfish, we’ve long had a passion for product innovation, so we have embraced this period of disruption. We’ve also learned valuable lessons from our experiences and those of our clients. As we look towards the future, we are keen to share our learnings and to continue innovating, as we help to develop the consumer and B2B products of the future. This post will explore the enduring impact of Covid-19 on innovation, product design, and hardware development, and look at how businesses can better embrace future crises.  

Any crisis is an agent for change

Crises can bring about positive changes because they offer choices. These could include optimizing and fine-tuning your core business by cutting costs, driving productivity, or opting for riskier innovation-led growth. However, during 2020, the majority of our clients continued with ongoing, planned, and budgeted projects. New innovation initiatives were put on hold, with a common “wait-and-see” mentality as companies pressed pause until the future of business looked clearer. This approach resulted in an “innovation freeze” across many different industries. Our clients’ experiences mirrored the global picture, with the exception of pharmaceutical and medical firms.

In the medical sector, huge investments were made to develop new drugs and devices and to improve healthcare processes. We also witnessed manufacturing and supply chain breakthroughs and the growth of novel collaboration techniques, like co-creation, co-development, and user-centered design thinking amongst different industries. What these innovations have in common is that they solve real problems. Innovations are often the result of a human desire to help, to connect with other people by offering a solution that is desirable and meaningful for the user in the context of its use.

In a post-Covid world, it is essential that business owners and leaders across industries move away from the “wait-and-see” mentality and take action. Innovation will be essential in order to avoid becoming a sitting duck in the new normal.

Graph: From proof of opportunity till proof of proposition

Innovation is much more than just a problem-solving opportunity. Crises provide us with unique circumstances that allow innovators to think more freely and to create fast, impactful change. For self-learning organizations, these circumstances offer the chance to fully commit to new ideas. They also enable teams to do their most innovative work for their own organizations and the audiences they serve.

How can crises drive innovation?

The following four key shifts typically occur during a crisis and pave the way for new thinking and action. Understanding these shifts can help business leaders seize the opportunity to cater for useful change and rethink their product innovation strategies and product development roadmaps.

1. Why, what, and how
Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle analogy suggests that successful teams unite people around a cause or a “why”, and this remains more relevant than ever in a post-Covid world. Purpose-driven organizations have a very clear value proposition. People and teams that acknowledge an organization’s purpose are motivated to put their knowledge, experience, and skills towards the best possible outcome. Committed people walk the extra mile. During a crisis, a tremendous spike of energy can be unlocked within a workforce. Business leaders that can successfully steer their workforces toward a clear purpose in resolving a crisis will typically find more than just energy and effort; they will often experience a highly impactful wave of new ideas, as individuals feel compelled to share insights, they normally would keep to themselves.

2. Take an eagle-eyed view
Business leaders often invite external consultants to give a fresh outside perspective on their organization and to identify new opportunities to innovate. A crisis has a similar effect, it highlights an organization’s flaws and weaknesses. Vulnerabilities that were ignored or remained invisible in day-to-day operations surface. When a crisis hits, we are forced to confront ourselves with the truth of a new reality. We assess what works and what doesn’t. We consider what we should develop for improved efficiency and productivity and what we should stop. With this critical mindset, opportunities for innovation can suddenly stack up

3. Prepare for volatility
Traditional businesses develop structures for better predictability, efficiency, and stability. But crises can change even the best-laid plans. Covid-19 for example changed the way product manufacturers needed to manage the inventory of critical components. Just-in-time delivery protocols and processes showed their flaws. Shortages of components made business leaders downsize their product portfolios, prioritize contracts and rank the customers they wanted to serve first. For many companies, a more flexible organization with a solid second sourcing policy that consists of pre-screened vendors could have avoided these kinds of costly and devastating measures.

4. Plan, develop, prototype, and validate
A crisis demands movement and change. The pace of ideation, design, and development, decision-making, and implementation needs to increase dramatically. There is no time for intense studies or expensive external research. Innovation in a post-Covid world can be optimized through a series of quick experiments, an inclusive approach to design (consisting of design sprints to allow for testing different methods), collecting market feedback, and failing early. Businesses will also need to quickly learn about new behaviors, particularly those of Generation Z.

Graph: Iterative product development process

With our deep understanding of these four key shifts and our open approach to embracing new tools and technologies, Pilotfish is excited about helping more organizations to embrace a more empathic and user-focussed product innovation roadmap. As we move towards a post-pandemic world, we will help projects progress by applying our inclusive design tools and co-creation methods and by measuring outcomes using design sprints in collaboration with end-users. A series of sprints can verify and validate ideas, from concepts to commercial roll-outs. If sprints fail, pivots based on user feedback can be proposed.

Graph: Pilotfish Product Development Landscape: From Concept2Production

The consumers of tomorrow do not want to waste their time engaging with obvious and expensive marketing pushes, they are tech-savvy and value-driven. There is a need for a genuine approach to product development and manufacturing including end-of-life strategy. Luckily, that’s something our teams in Taiwan, Berlin, and Amsterdam are passionate about.  We’re excited to help more clients with the design and turnkey developments of their dreams, through the post-pandemic era, and beyond.

Harm Hogenbirk is co-founder Managing Partner of Pilotfish, an international design and innovation agency specialized in the turnkey delivery of Medical Devices, IoB, IoT, and wearables. 

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