Crises are adrenaline for innovation. It’s a pattern manifested throughout history: a significant economic or social disruption creates a market need or shift in behavior that innovators use as a launchpad for new products, services, and business models. In the 1940s, manufacturers of home appliances and convenience technologies responded to the needs of women who entered the workforce and were spending less time at home.
The SARS epidemic that ravaged Asia in 2002 and led its citizens to shelter in place kick-started widespread adoption of e-commerce in the region, making China the epicenter of innovation in online transactions and social commerce. Similarly, the COVID-19 crisis catalyzed an almost overnight reinvention of the restaurant industry as digital menus accessed via QR codes redefined the table ordering processes and eateries set up “dark kitchens” to enable large-scale preparation of food for delivery.
The fact of the matter is consumers can now find, buy and receive products in a multiplying number of ways. Where shopping was a chore, it now gets done in a few clicks. Where it was a pleasure, it has now expanded into a journey of discovery.
All this depends on a stream of innovations—in fields as diverse as online interfaces, store operations, and delivery. But innovation often means disruption, with new business models being created. Many of the new models are coming from pure play direct-to-consumer (DTC) retailers wanting in on the physical retail footprint and its re-invention.
When I started my career as a strategy and innovation consultant in the post dot.com bubble era, innovation was largely driven out of R&D centers that were invention houses. Today, innovation is viewed as an agile, cross-functional approach that designs solutions by aggregating elements of the solution. You must make decisions quickly under extremely uncertain conditions, and you never have enough time or information to fully weigh difficult choices that may affect both employee livelihoods and the survival of the business. Yet these very constraints can unleash waves of creativity.