Necessity: the mother of innovation
Worldwide lockdowns are changing the way we live and work. Not only do we need to find new ways to do things like communicate with our colleagues and customers and educate our children – in short to innovate – we need to find new ways to do the innovating itself.
But at a time when falling sales (and profits) are inflicting many companies, senior managers are being forced to re-consider their priorities. Should they continue to spend on innovation – over and above other things that relate to the “here and now” – and, if so, how should they go about it?
If ever the phrase “survival of the fittest” were true, it is surely now: the most ‘fit’ to adapt to the new normal of remote working and digital engagement, and the most fit to innovate in a way that delivers tangible (and desirable) outcomes – and a greater ability to compete – while all the time managing costs and preserving the business.
Hunker down or keep going?
Inevitably a company’s priorities – and its ability to continue its existing activities as well as initiate new ones – will depend on its financial health, but a decision to ‘hunker down’ – for example by stopping some non-essential activities such as marketing, staff training and, yes, innovation – is one that, most often, will leave a business weaker and less able to survive and prosper when the crisis passes (which, by the way, it will).
Of course, many companies know this and, galvanised by the circumstances of the pandemic, are using the time to innovate hard and fast. Can your company afford to do less just as your competitors are doing more?
So what should you do?
Companies innovate in many ways – through inhouse R&D departments as well as collaboration with external technology providers – but at an unprecedented time like this, what are the right ways? How can corporates get the best bang for their innovation buck?
Focusing on the short term
To stay competitive in the short and medium terms – that is now and over the next 3-5 years – companies should seek out proven and ‘ready-to-go’ technologies and solutions, ones that will deliver critical quick fixes and help your firm adapt to the new normal, not to mention staying with or getting ahead of your competitors, including disruptive ‘upstarts’.
That means defining as precisely as possible, perhaps with outside help, what you need and then deploying a highly-targeted ‘scouting’ strategy, remembering that the best-fit technologies or solutions may reside with startups and scaleups outside of Japan. You should treat every search as a global one, taking in not just the obvious innovation ‘hotspots’ like Silicon Valley, but other parts of the United States, Europe and China. Leave no stone unturned.
By contrast, what will not deliver tangible outcomes in the short term – essential at a time when budgets are tightening and you need to adapt fast – is participation in accelerators or, for that matter, strategic investments in early-stage startups, whether directly or via a fund. Those things are important as a way of supporting aspiring entrepreneurs and the innovation ecosystem at large – not to mention your longer-term strategy – but they will not address your immediate challenges.
Re-prioritise, not de-prioritise
So it’s not a case of ‘deprioritising’ your innovation, but rather of ‘reprioritising’ it to focus on ways that will deliver the essential, short-term benefits.
That means, even in the face of the pandemic and international travel restrictions, retaining your global outposts – your ‘innovation antenna’ – so that you can continue to seek and engage the best technology and solution providers, as well as monitor your industry’s trends and competitors.
If personnel can’t relocate – because of the pandemic – keep your existing people in post or use proxies, such as local technology scouts, to do their work. And of course leverage the latest digital technologies to help you communicate, evaluate and accelerate.
An innovation strategy should, by its very nature, be dynamic; it should adapt to fit the circumstances. Every company needs to be thinking about and investing in its long-term future, but right now the emphasis should be on working with innovators and startups who can deliver fast, workable solutions. And the best way to achieve that is through a strategy of direct, deliberate and hands-on engagement.