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PA OPINION

The bigger the challenge, the more ingenious people become – lessons from COVID-19

Necessity is the mother of invention. Never has that old phrase meant more than now, as the world battles to deal with the coronavirus. But it’s been inspiring to see some businesses taking up the challenge. And it will be fascinating to see how that response alters through the different phases of the crisis, and into recovery.

The COVID-19 pandemic has confronted business with its kryptonite: uncertainty. But it’s also made it tap one of its superpowers: ingenuity. The best businesses are always ingenious, of course. The ability to reinvent what they do and how they do it is vital to staying competitive. But sometimes it takes a crisis to jolt the most creative impulses into action, whether that crisis affects just the business, its industry or, in this case, the world.

I’m lucky enough to work alongside brilliant strategists and innovators every day, so I’ve asked them what ingenuity means to them in the context of responding to COVID-19.

Firstly, they’ve described numerous examples of businesses unlocking their ingenuity and channelling it in the most positive way. Whatever the sector, and whatever the country, they’ve done the things that we believe put business at the centre of creating a positive human future. 

Secondly, they’ve continuously pointed out that our advice on how leaders can unlock ingenuity – set out in our New Leadership Agenda in 2019 – has never been more relevant. Specifically, the need for leaders to nurture individuals’ optimism, let their teams innovate, make their organisations more agile, and always seek for inspiration in surprising places

When we set out our New Leadership Agenda and made the case for the power of ingenuity to build a positive human future, we couldn’t have foreseen a global pandemic. But, if anything, the response to COVID-19 has proved the indestructibility of ingenuity.

Unlocking Ingenuity – examples to inspire

Reinventing the restaurant

With diners no longer able to eat in restaurants, the UK’s Leon chain could have closed its doors, laid off its staff and sat out the pandemic. Instead, it’s reframed the problem. It’s seen supermarkets battling to fill their shelves as supply chains struggle to regroup in the face of surging demand. And it’s seen its own supply chain is still ready and able. So the business has repurposed its 65 restaurants as shops. People can buy ready-meals, sauces and ingredients by click-and-collect or home delivery.  As well as keeping its own business moving, Leon is sustaining its own suppliers.

Similar things have happened elsewhere. In Los Angeles, California, restaurants have rapidly moved beyond delivery and takeaway to meal kits and ‘taco survival packs’, turning restaurants into retail outlets, boxing up and selling unused stock and offering no-contact pick-up from the kerbside.

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Redeploying the drone

In China, drones have found new work to do. Instead of supporting agriculture by surveying crops and spraying insecticide, they’ve disinfected public spaces up to 50 times more efficiently (and much more safely) than spraying by hand. Drones have also helped move COVID-19 test kits and samples around faster, saving time and sparing unnecessary human contact. Healthcare and aviation agencies have come together quickly to approve flight routes and safety measures.

Drones have long been earmarked for a role in consumer delivery, but that trend speeded up fast as workers’ safety became critical and a locked-down population searched for essentials. When the authorities shut down the ferry to the remote island village of Anxin, local government and e-commerce company JD got to work. Within days, they’d designed flight corridors, requested airspace access and started testing grocery deliveries. The lessons from these experiments about public-private partnerships, working at speed and thinking laterally about technology are clear.

Retasking the robot

In a Wuhan field hospital, robots have brought meals, drinks and drugs to patients, cleaned their wards and even taken their temperatures, cutting the risk of infection to staff. In India, a Jaipur hospital has run trials to see if a humanoid robot can carry out similar tasks, and Kerala start-up Asimov Robotics says its three-wheeled robot can bring meals and medicines to isolation wards now.

Meanwhile Danish business UVD Robots has ramped up production after a sharp rise in orders for a robot that cleans rooms with UV light. The light kills bacteria, viruses and other harmful microbes by damaging their DNA and RNA so they can’t multiply. Launched to combat hospital-acquired infections in 2019, the technology has arrived in the nick of time.

Remaking the factory

Manufacturers, too, have repurposed. They’re one of the sectors least able to switch staff to remote working and most likely to feel the chaos of disrupted supply chains. But they’ve still looked for ways to contribute. YSL and Balenciaga are making masks for French hospitals, Fiat is making them in China and clothing manufacturers Eterna and Trigema are doing the same in Germany. This repurposing has meant wholesale changes to materials and product designs, reprogramming and retooling manufacturing equipment, retraining staff and introducing new safety and quality control procedures. No light undertaking, but a highly valuable one.

LMVH, the company behind Dior and Louis Vuitton, is just one of the perfumeries and distilleries that converted their plants to make hand sanitiser for hospitals at no cost. BrewDog, the UK brewer, has launched its own Punk Sanitiser for the NHS, and Anheuser-Busch and smaller distilleries have answered the call in the US.

Manufacturers are using their ingenuity to redeploy their facilities and knowhow to accelerate production of much needed ventilators. From General Motors, Ford and Tesla in the US to Nissan, Vauxhall, and Formula 1 teams in the UK, as well as Indian tractor and electric vehicle builder Mahindra, car makers are among those leading the way. At PA, we’re co-ordinating the UK’s effort to rapidly increase production, working closely with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and leading manufacturers, as well as medical design consultancies.

A new healthcare ecosystem

In the UK, we’ve seen exhibition centres being turned into temporary hospitals and private hospitals and hotels being handed over to NHS patients. We’ve seen a global expansion in telemedicine, taking pressure off hospitals. In Norway, for example, the government telecare programme has expanded fast to introduce new virtual clinics and services for people with learning difficulties. And worldwide, an army of volunteers has been drafted into frontline healthcare, from medical students and retired medics to cabin crew and the military.

Reimagining the COVID-19 test

Perhaps the most urgent need is for testing. Dutch molecular diagnosis company Qiagen is reconfiguring its supply chain, coordinating factories in Germany, Spain and the US for seven-day production aimed at providing 10 million tests a month around the world.

A fast, reliable and scalable test is the key to finding out how the disease spreads, where it’s concentrated and how the illness progresses. But current methods take anything from two days to a week to produce a result. Ulster-based diagnostics specialist Randox has developed the only test that can identify the lethal strain of COVID-19 and tell the difference between it and other non-lethal strains. It can also test 54 patients at once. Meanwhile San Francisco start-up Mammoth Biosciences has produced a proof of concept that applies a genetic engineering tool to Coronavirus testing. It needs only a swab from the patient’s nose or mouth and produces a result in around four hours without lab analysis.

Letting ingenuity lead the way – the new leadership agenda

All these examples suggest ingenuity is a natural human impulse. The bigger the challenge, the more ingenious we become, because we have to. But they also underline how ingenuity needs help to flourish and make an impact. That will be just as true as organisations adjust to a new kind of normal once governments lift the current lockdown restrictions. I believe the New Leadership Agenda we set out in 2019 is even more urgent now, especially in its call to reimagine business by unlocking ingenuity in four ways.

  • Leaders’ first challenge will be possibly their toughest: to encourage and sustain the optimism that sparks and powers creativity. It will mean confronting emerging realities honestly while focusing people’s minds on purpose, possibility and opportunity. And it will mean sending a clear signal that experimentation is valued, if anything, even more highly.
  • Experimentation flourishes by combining different skills and specialisms in virtual teams, which break down siloes. Now is the time for businesses to make functions and departments more fluid and focus more intently on what customers need and how best to give it to them. This is especially important when so many are working remotely. It’s the time to create the environment for ingenuity by empowering teams to innovate.
  • Being ready to change like this is about businesses building an evolving organisation and being ready to turn uncertainty to their advantage. Those with simpler systems, processes and governance alongside their culture of innovation are lighter on their feet. They’re faster at making decisions, meeting customer needs and getting value from new products and services. And that will matter all the more as they look to turn crisis into recovery.
  • Finally, businesses will need to look beyond their own four walls and explore unlikely places for inspiration with more curiosity than ever. If the current situation has taught us anything, it’s that we can’t do it alone. Proactively building new networks and collaborations, formal or informal, can let vital energy and spark into their structures and thinking. It could be the stimulus to join unlikely-seeming dots and quicken the flow of new ideas.

We see the value of these ways of thinking and working every day at our Global Innovation and Technology Centre, where we turn ingenious ideas into physical and digital reality. And as we guide our clients in ways to quickly adapt and succeed in this volatile environment.

Now, more than ever, is the moment to embrace these values and find out what your people can really do when you let them. Our world needs it.

Contact the author

Contact the innovation team

Anita Chandraker

Anita Chandraker

Frazer Bennett

Frazer Bennett

Hugo Raaijmakers

Hugo Raaijmakers

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