Photo by Brian Jackson / 123rf.com

We are seven months into the COVID-19 crisis, and this pandemic is causing havoc in both the major loss of lives and the disruption of economies around the world. Every week brings new challenges as we try to adapt to our “new normal.” However, as time goes on, it has also become apparent that the pandemic is driving innovation in a number of ways.

The foremost example of the pandemic driving innovation is the rush to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. 

In the early days of the pandemic, forecasts predicted that we would not see a viable vaccine for another 18-24 month. Still, it would be another 5-6 years before that vaccine was widely available.  These projections were based on historical precedent in vaccine creation. However, as of August 2020, there are more than 165 COVID-19 vaccines in development, 31 of which are already in human trials.

Not only has vaccine development been significantly accelerated, but vaccines are also being developed in new ways. These innovative options are possible because of the ability to quickly identify the DNA signature of COVID-19. For example, Moderna’s new vaccine, one of two vaccines already approved for human use, is based on RNA messengers (mRNA) delivering viral proteins to the body, a new mechanism to promote immunity. New modes of development will potentially both increase the effectiveness of treatment and also widen distribution by being more efficient and cost-effective to produce. 

COVID-19 testing has evolved by leaps and bounds in the last few months, too. As of writing, the FDA has approved a new test that will test spit instead of swabs, significantly increasing testing capabilities.

Other industries and businesses of all sizes have seen significant innovation as well. Many small businesses have changed their business model to accommodate contactless transactions. For example, restaurants are utilizing digital platforms for take-out or delivery, or have begun offering pantry supplies as well as prepared food (this was especially relevant in the early days of the pandemic when grocery stores were experiencing supply chain disruption and increased demand).

The innovative transition to digital, contactless transactions, or the work-from-home model, have been made possible by the technology platforms developed over the past few years. These readily available software applications have been critical to the technology infrastructure required to keep our economy up and running. Innovative software platforms like Zoom for meetings, Slack for communication, Amazon for delivery, Netflix for entertainment, and UberEats for delivery have made living and working from home more productive and infinitely more tolerable.

When human lives are at risk, we go into survival mode, and innovation drives entrepreneurial progress. It is critical, crisis or not, for all businesses to institutionalize innovation if they are going to survive. But, “when you are up to your neck in alligators, it is hard to remember that your initial objective was to drain the swamp.” In other words, attempting to develop a robust strategic planning process that drives innovation in the midst of the kind of economic crisis that strikes every decade or so can be profoundly difficult.

Fortunately, there are excellent examples of businesses that continually innovate to provide inspiration and guidance: multigenerational family businesses.

In order to survive successive generations, the family business must be ready to respond to the crises that unfold during each generations’ leadership. We can look to multigenerational family businesses for instruction on how to institutionalize innovation:

Innovation must come from the top. Sustainable innovation must be led by the CEO.  This is especially true in times of crisis when the company needs clear direction and leadership.

Identify your “secret sauce.” While it can be useful to benchmark other companies’ experiences, your company will have a unique quality that produces your most innovative products and services. Look to company history and your founding story to distill what that attribute might be.

Assess your technology platforms. Often, innovation results from considering new ways to utilize the technologies you already have. For example, an engineer at 3M developed a new product for the Ford Motor Company when he realized that he could make masking tape simply by eliminating the sand particles after applying a modified adhesive to the sandpaper web. 

Strategic planning helps focus your investment in innovation. Strategic planning turns innovation into viable business solutions – and also drives your human capital decisions. In order to foster innovation in your business, you must have bright, intelligent people who operate with an entrepreneurial spirit and a sense of urgency. Remember, in my experience, we can anticipate an unforeseen crisis about every decade, which I refer to as economic tsunamis. Suppose you can develop an innovation process supported by robust strategic planning before the crisis hits. In that case, you will find you and your organization effectively responding to the next economic tsunami rather than being forced to react tactically.