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Lessons on Innovation from COVID-19


Lessons on Innovation from COVID-19

Stephen Wunker shares a paper he co-wrote with Charlotte Desprat, and Jennifer Law that identifies five key principles learned during COVID to improve innovation strength.

We are all innovators now. As the pandemic slowly wanes, we can look back on the last year and a half knowing that we have discovered innovation muscles that we didn’t know we had. We needed to innovate in order to cope with the upheaval in our personal lives, as well as for businesses to continue to thrive.

Notably, the way that organizations approach innovation changed massively over a relatively short period of time. The status quo – what New Markets has commonly observed in enterprises over the past decade – is that innovation has typically been product-focused instead of customer-led, nested in big programs, and split between functional silos instead of being a widespread habit. These companies have wanted to do things differently – which is one reason why they engaged us – but breaking with long-held habits was tough.

COVID-19 demanded new behaviors if companies were to survive. Speed, ongoing adaptation, and multidimensional innovation reigned as enterprises adjusted to the pandemic. It worked. Amid all its hardships, this past year and a half witnessed perhaps the fastest pace of innovation the world has ever seen – from new business models to new forms of customer interaction, and a great deal more. This is one of the pandemic’s unheralded triumphs, and it indicates that much better times lie ahead.

​What’s changed? We evaluated the state of innovation across dozens of clients and distilled our findings into five key principles you can embrace to sustain and keep up your innovation strengths.

1. Embrace Uncertainty with FutureCasting
The pandemic saw a major defeat for hubris. Organizations learned that the future often does not arrive through orderly extrapolation, but via sudden shifts in which trends combine to create fast, massive upheaval. The turn of the millennium was another such time. While many of us may crave stability ahead, the pace of economic, societal, and political change currently shows few signs of deceleration. In these times, gaining clearer visibility about the future requires both concerted effort and humility.

FutureCasting – a disciplined method of determining what your company’s future can be – is a way to surmount these challenges. Through approaches we have described elsewhere, including trend analysis with scenario planning, mechanisms to determine what COVID-related behavior changes will stick, as well as the Uncertainty Matrix, you can identify both the most plausible futures as well as edge cases that create threat and opportunity. This vision of the future then establishes the context for determining what growth options to seek.

Planning the Future of Higher Education
Schools rank among the newest adopters of scenario planning. While some institutions had used the tool before, COVID-19 fostered widespread usage. Whether they are designing near-term contingency plans or preparing for the post-pandemic future, educators have had to wrestle with the uncertainty that lies ahead.

​Let’s take a look at Western Michigan University, where scenario planning has become a routine exercise since the outbreak of COVID-19. As the associate provost of their strategic team explains, the pandemic allowed them to build alternative futures more seriously and take a closer look at more pessimistic scenarios. They also became more aware of the factors they should pay attention to. In the case of international student enrollment for instance, the possibility of travel abroad is a major factor for both recruitment and the balance of virtual vs. in-person learning for foreign students.

Key points include:

  • Innovating with purpose
  • Investing in augmented reality
  • Thinking beyond the product


Access the full paper, ​After Covid-19, How Does Innovation Change?, on