Unlocking innovation opportunities in chaotic times

An innovation program that balances creativity, rigor and consistency can empower businesses to grow in times of crisis.
05 August 2020
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Dr Nicki

Head of Behavioural Science and Innovation Expertise, Kantar Insights, UK

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Crises present opportunities for growth. In the tensions of dire circumstance are the seeds of regeneration and renewal. Southwest Airlines announced its 47th consecutive year of profitability in January at the beginning of the pandemic. Unfortunately, even the longest track records for year-on-year growth have been disrupted by COVID-19.

Consistent reinvention is classically difficult for organizations to achieve. Few organic entities can effectively juggle the delicate balance between chaos and order that is the dance of progress. Every day new entrants sideswipe established players out of action from their blind spots. Incumbents have reacted by spinning off skunkworks of various sorts, to keep the Innovator’s Dilemma at bay.

Oftentimes, these new business arms rush at innovation opportunities with speed and mistake this for agility. There is a tightrope to be walked between fast results, creativity and rigor – whereby robust, meaningful insight and real, transferable learnings are not sacrificed for speed.

So, how can businesses better manage innovation?

You may have heard of an inspiring innovation experiment from the American industrial designer Peter Skillman. It is called The Marshmallow Challenge – not the one where kids need to delay gratification – but the one where teams have 18 minutes to build the tallest freestanding structure that they can out of masking tape and dry spaghetti to support a lone marshmallow. Skillman has performed these experiments with over 70 groups and the highest scoring group amongst engineers, MBA students and CEO’s turns out to be kindergarteners. In the typical scenario the kids keep planning to a minimum and no one tries to dominate the process. The kids also place the marshmallow at the top of their structure from the beginning, repeatedly testing their expectations, unlike the MBA’s and CEO’s whose towers are crushed under the weight of their own misguided assumptions about the true heft of a large marshmallow. The deep lessons learned revolve around learning by doing, working in parallel, multiple iterations and the downsides of being first to market – all good instructions for innovation.

Is successful innovation as simple as kids’ games?

Whilst this covers the creativity there is an important innovation concept that the Marshmallow Challenge omits, and that is rigor. While it is nice to think that designers and engineers can stumble upon a solution with intuition and experimentation, the truth is that it takes process if you want repeated success. More importantly, it takes the right process.

In our recent webinar we discuss the challenges innovators face today, the opportunities our new context brings, and importantly five tips to recovery and growth through innovation.

We show how an ‘test and learn’ philosophy paired with agility and rigor are key to success. How ideas and concepts must be meaningfully different to the competition, align to the brand, and meet other benchmarks for success. And how our new suite of


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