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Frugal Innovation

Never let a good crisis go to waste. Why the COVID-19 pandemic will catalyze innovation.

calendar icon August 12, 2020

The global impact of the coronavirus has been staggering, setting off an economic fallout that will likely change the face of business for years to come.

For innovation teams who work within organizations to source, cultivate, and manage the outside-inside partnerships that are fundamental to today’s open innovation model, the pandemic has dealt a particular blow. To do this important work, these ecosystem builders rely heavily on relationship-building and personal connections.

In today’s reality of hiring freezes, travel restrictions, and cancelled conferences, the work of building and managing an innovation pipeline is more difficult. Given the unprecedented moment in which we find ourselves, this is not a moment to adopt a scarcity mindset or put innovation on pause.

I see it differently. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, I believe this can be innovation’s finest hour.

COVID-19 as catalyst

Crises have a way of mobilizing focus, overcoming inertia, and disrupting traditional ways of doing business.

Today’s coronavirus pandemic is driving one of the greatest bursts of ingenuity and collaboration in recent memory. General Motors has partnered with Ventec to retool its Kokomo, Indiana, plant to produce ventilators. Google and Apple are collaborating on contact tracing efforts for COVID-19. SC Johnson has partnered with Dow to convert a line at its largest manufacturing facility in Wisconsin to produce hand sanitizer for COVID-19 frontline health workers. Ford and 3M have partnered to produce medical equipment on its auto assembly lines, delivering urgently needed powered air-purifying respirators (PAPRs) in fewer than 40 days.

In each of these examples, the global health crisis has prompted new ways of approaching problems and a bias toward action. It’s not about having an abundance of time and resources, rather it’s the shortage of them that can help teams overcome obstacles and find new routes.

After all, innovation is problem-solving, pure and simple. How can we leverage this moment in time to rediscover what we’re capable of? To find solutions to the world’s most pressing problems, partner with the smartest people possible and use constrained resources more wisely and efficiently. In other words, to do more with less.

A lesson from frugal innovation

In the developing world, the concept of frugal innovation has been a mainstay of the do-more-with-less approach. We’ve seen bicycles used to charge cell phone batteries, billboards that suck humidity out of the air to create drinkable water in deserts, walnut shells used to make flooring, and micropayments transform the banking industry by leveraging the existing mobile phone infrastructure. It’s an approach that demands, as the Harvard Business Review suggests, changing both the mental model of employees and the operational model of the business. According to authors Navi Radjou and Jaideep Prabhu, “frugal innovation denotes a new frame of mind: one that sees resource constraints not as a liability but as an opportunity — and one that favors agility over efficiency.”

It’s interesting to consider how the concepts of frugal innovation can apply to developed economies and the way we have traditionally approached innovation. In an environment where many of the traditional strategies for developing and sourcing innovation are impractical or unaffordable, we have an imperative to find more scalable and frugal ways to engage with innovation ecosystems.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see a surge of strategic partnerships formed to bring new products to market faster, and a greater emphasis around the tools required to source and evaluate technology solutions from outside an enterprise’s walls to stabilize the business and get back to growth. It seems like nothing should be off the table when we’re living through a moment where agility and speed are critical to survival.

A moment of opportunity

The pandemic, and its economic and social consequences, will put pressure on enterprises around the world to operate differently. Some innovation teams have begun the work of implementing systems and tools to digitize the hundreds of human interactions occurring each day, and to manage their innovation supply chain more effectively. The COVID-19 crisis is a moment of opportunity to accelerate improvements to the process of innovation that is already underway.

For this crisis to become our finest hour, it will require making smarter use of available resources. It will call for replacing scattershot interactions with labs, accelerators, universities, in-house teams, and external partners with a systematically managed innovation supply chain that can empower all collaborators to work together effectively across the entire innovation lifecycle.

Yes, conferences and hackathons may be cancelled, budgets cut, and travel restricted. But transformational ideas can still take flight as innovation teams invent new best practices and new ways to work together effectively. It’s not about the resources you don’t have, it’s about how you apply the resources you have.