Riding The Wave: Building A Resilient Culture Of Innovation For Corporations In A Post COVID-19 World
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For decades, governments and business communities globally have analyzed the disruptive forces that could impact global economies and debated what should be done about them. While the disruptive trends of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (including the internet of things, artificial intelligence, blockchain, so on and so forth) have inevitably changed the way that we live our day-to-day lives, these changes have happened “slow enough” to allow those who benefit from the status quo to resist the changes needed to establish the innovative, sustainable, ethical, and inclusive economies of the future.
However, in the past several months, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced our global communities to face many realities, the truths that we have been too scared to deal with, because they would require us to exchange the comfortable status quo that we have known for so long with a completely different way of living, learning, and doing business.
Although implementing these changes has felt seemingly impossible, the response of governments, businesses, and populations to the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide has only served to prove that we’re capable of anything if we put our minds to it.
The power of technology and the ingenuity of the human spirit have really been driven home for me by my experience as a program manager with the Anjal Z program facilitated by Seedstars. This initiative, led by the Abu Dhabi Early Childhood Authority, offers an equity-free, eight-week, high-impact growth program, for global scale-ups that focus on improving early childhood development (children between zero and eight years of age) in the fields of health and nutrition, early care and education, child protection and family support. Initially, we began delivering the training in person in Abu Dhabi; however, as the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic began becoming increasingly evident and governments around the world began imposing travel restrictions and other safety measures, I decided to return home to Switzerland to be with my family. But like many businesses and teams all around the world, we at Seedstars and the Abu Dhabi Early Childhood Authority worked together to successfully turn the training for the Anjal Z program into a virtual one.
Delivering this program virtually in the unprecedented context of the COVID-19 pandemic has given me a new perspective on entrepreneurship, agility, and innovation. Now, more than ever, I’m concerned about the fate of our global business ecosystems, because I have worked in financial services and management consulting (with a special focus on innovation and business strategy) in Europe and the MENAT region, and I know how resistant corporations can be to change. Nevertheless, the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly heralded a new age in our global business ecosystems and corporations can no longer afford to resist change.
While startups are used to fast decision-making, boot-strapping, adapting business models, and having difficult conversations about burn rates and runway, large corporations aren’t. However, the current pandemic will change life as we know it for months, maybe even years to come. So, if corporations are unwilling or unable to learn, grow, and adapt, they might never recover. I know that developing a robust culture of innovation may seem daunting for many corporations, but it’s necessary if they wish to survive the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to thrive in a post COVID-19 world. With this predicament in mind, I believe it’s time that corporations worldwide consider internalizing the spirit of the popular corporate innovation outpost trend.
For several years now, many corporations have set up innovation outposts in some of the world’s most vibrant innovative communities to be “close to the action.” Yet, according to Alessandro Di Fiore, founder and CEO of the European Centre for Strategic Innovation, most innovation outposts fail to achieve their goal of promoting innovation and forward-thinking strategies in organizations, because they don’t develop the standard operating procedures needed to extract value from the contacts, companies, and innovations that can be found in abundance at these outposts. While the innovation outpost model is an interesting concept for attracting new talent and ideas, I believe that it’s crucial now for corporations to prioritize promoting the innovative potential that already exists in their own organization.
Now, you might say that most large corporations already have R&D departments, but I believe that this view of corporate innovation is too narrow in this day and age. Large organizations can no longer afford the tunnel vision associated with the traditional R&D department model. Although it’s vital for corporations to constantly develop the products and services they offer to their customer base, it’s also important for them to improve the way that every department in their organization operates because, ultimately, every department contributes to the success of a company- not just the R&D department. After all, they do call it an innovation pipeline, not an innovation pipe. So, how can corporations develop the innovative DNA of each department within their organization?
Personally, I believe that the secret lies in unleashing the problem-solving potential (or solution-finding potential, to frame it more positively) of corporate employees. At the end of the day, who understands the inner workings, assets, and shortcomings of an organization better than its own employees? It seems impractical to me for corporations to go looking for innovation elsewhere, when they haven't spent enough time and/or resources developing and implementing effective innovation pipelines that operate within and across their organizations. Below, I share a tentative model for how a corporation could begin establishing such a company-wide innovation pipeline. But while this particular piece focuses on innovation in the context of corporations, I believe that government entities and other large organizations could greatly benefit from adopting more disruptive thinking like this. The best thing about the model that I’m about to propose is that any organization can start experimenting with it- all they have to have is an internet connection, and some kind of communication platform.
1/ Establish “incubation centers” Corporates could establish a space or time of day in each department to allow their employees to gather and debate about the issues that negatively impact productivity, or brainstorm new and creative ways to promote excellence and high performance. When employees with similar ideas or passions find each other, they can form a team, and begin preparing a pitch to present a solution or “hack” to senior-level management and fellow employees at an intra-department pitch competition.
2/ Host intra-department pitch competitions Several teams from each department could pitch their solution or “hack” to a panel of senior management and fellow employees. The competition’s categories could be organized by department pain points, types of innovation, or any other categorization that would make sense to the department in question. One winner or multiple winners could be selected by the judging panel. After the competition, the winning teams could receive more guidance and feedback from senior management (or a group of external mentors) about how they could improve and execute their projects.
3/ Host company-wide presentation events The winners from each intradepartment competition could gather to present their ideas to the leadership of the company and its employees, and explain the added value of their projects and how their solution or “hack” would impact the organization’s overall standard operating procedures and how they might impact the day-today operations of each department, if at all.
4/ Partner with relevant startups At this juncture, I would encourage the leadership of each department to explore their innovation outpost network (or any network at their disposal) to see if there are new or established startups that are working on similar ideas as the winning teams. The corporation could then choose to partner or acquire these startups to help roll out the proposed initiatives. Many top public and private organizations already practice open innovation -a process for sharing knowledge and ideas with other organizations- and it’s about time that this became a standard practice.
Once the above model has been realized, then it’s just a matter of rinse, lather, and repeat. Ultimately, every corporation is different in terms of size, resources, and level of innovative thinking. The model that I shared above could be repeated on a quarterly basis or a biannual basis, depending on the needs of the organization. A corporation could even choose to establish a completely different style of promoting innovative thinking within its organization. Regardless of how a corporation chooses to promote innovation, I think it’s crucial that more companies establish some sort of culture of innovation that promotes the following key behaviors:
1/ Promotes disruptive thinking As I mentioned before, having obsolete products and/or services is not the only thing that can render a company obsolete. Having antiquated standard operating procedures or mentalities can be just as detrimental to a corporation’s long-term success. Consequently, it’s important that every department in a corporation focuses on how it can improve its performance or efficacy- no matter what they do.
2/ Encourage employee engagement The happier your workforce is, the likelier they are to work for you and bring their A-game. Promoting cultures of innovation and well-being is important in this day and age as millennials, unlike their predecessors, are less likely to stay in a job where they don’t feel that they’re growing or contributing to society. According to Deloitte’s Global Millennial Survey 2019 report, 49% of millennials surveyed would, if they had a choice, quit their current jobs in the next two years, up from 38% in 2017. Some of the reasons they cited included “dissatisfaction withpay and lack of advancement and professional development opportunities.” While the model I propose might not be able to address all the issues that corporations face in terms of employee retention, I do believe that it could tackle many of them.
3/ Promote inter and intradepartmental collaboration One of the biggest pitfalls of most large corporations is that their teams or departments often work in silos. Therefore, they don’t know what’s happening in other teams or departments, which often leads to fractured organizational identity, breakdowns in communication, and “leaks” in corporations’ innovation pipelines. By making value-sharing an important tenet of innovation pipelines, corporations can avoid “identity crises,” and promote more collaboration among their employees.
4/ Encourage collaboration or delegation when necessary True leaders, whether they hold titles or not, know when to ask for help, or even when to “pass the baton,” if there's someone who’s more capable of executing a task. Not only could encouraging corporate innovation teams to collaborate with startups help the corporations’ employees acquire valuable insight and skillsets, it could also help them learn the importance and value of delegating in the innovation process. Either way, it’s a win-win situation.
While many businesses may be overwhelmed by the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on their operations, I believe that it was only a matter of time until something like this pandemic came and sent shock waves through our global business ecosystems. I know that it might not be easy to hear, but it must be said. Many stakeholders in our global business ecosystems have been operating in an unsustainable fashion for decades. The status quo had lulled us all into a false sense of security and complacency. However, the abrupt and indiscriminate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has served as a sobering reminder that we can no longer resist change. Either our global business stakeholders and community evolve, or we go under.
As the late chairman and CEO of General Electrics, Jack Welch, once said: “If the rate of change on the outside exceeds the rate of change on the inside, the end is near.” To me, these words don’t only refer to the innovative potential of corporations and the business ecosystems in which they exist; it also refers to the values that we believe and the values we choose to practice. Corporate innovation means nothing if it’s not informed and guided by fundamental values such as inclusivity and sustainability. If these difficult times have taught us anything, it’s that we’re stronger when we work with each other, and for each other