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

Necessity is the mother of invention. Never have we had better proof of that than we do now, as the world deals with the coronavirus pandemic. It’s been inspiring to see ingenious responses to COVID-19, and it will be fascinating to see how that response alters as we move into recovery – human ingenuity is always present, but sometimes it takes a crisis to jolt it into action.

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 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 importance of ingenuity.

Unlocking Ingenuity – examples to inspire

Reinventing the restaurant

With efforts to control the pandemic forcing restaurants to close, we’ve seen many rethink their business models by offering ‘cook at home’ meals. Everything from Michelin starred venues to local pubs have started preparing versions of their dishes that people can finish themselves with basic domestic kitchen kit.

As simple as this sounds, it’s taken some innovative thinking to make successful. Chefs usually prepare ingredients each day and cook dishes to order using professional equipment. Breaking down those dishes into a few components that will survive transport and only need finishing in a pan or oven is a completely different way of thinking.

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Redeploying the drone

Dozens of countries have looked to drones to support their responses to COVID-19, from delivering tests to hospitals, to disinfecting large public spaces. That’s hardly surprising when researchers in Sweden found a fleet of just 36 drones could deliver tests to everyone in a city of 100,000 people every four days, letting authorities map the spread of the virus in incredible detail.

Ghana was the first to introduce a drone test delivery network, adapting an existing fleet of drones used to deliver medical supplies to rural areas in just weeks. In China, when restrictions suspended the ferry service to Anxin’s series of islands, local government and e-commerce company JD designed flight corridors, requested airspace access and started testing grocery deliveries within days. More recently, in the second wave of the pandemic in Europe, the UK Government started using drones to move COVID-19 tests between Scotland’s many islands.

Re-tasking the robot

Robots have become a vital tool in pandemic response. At UC Berkeley, miniature robotic factories are working around the clock to autonomously diagnose people. In India, a humanoid robot called Mitra is reducing contact, and therefore potential infections, in hospitals by taking people’s vital signs and using its integrated tablet to let families visit virtually. And beyond clinical settings, robots are pitching in by disinfecting shared spaces using UV light – the US Department of Defence has adapted a firefighting robot to disinfect offices.

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.

LVMH, 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, launched its own Punk Sanitiser for the NHS, and Anheuser-Busch and smaller distilleries 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 led the UK’s effort to rapidly increase ventilator production, working closely with government departments, leading manufacturers and medical design consultancies.

Redesigning the healthcare ecosystem

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

Revolutionising vaccine development

Probably the greatest achievement during the pandemic has been the incredible development of vaccines. With the huge number of volunteers for clinical trials and vast pools of funding available, it’s been inspiring to see some of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies develop, test and produce billions of vaccines without letting other life-saving products falter. We’ve even seen the first mRNA vaccine, which delivers tiny snippets of genetic code to cells to teach them to fight COVID-19. With mRNA vaccines safer, more stable and more translatable than traditional vaccines, a new era of immunology could be the lasting, positive legacy of this coronavirus.

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. 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. I believe our New Leadership Agenda is even more urgent now, especially in its call to reimagine business by unlocking ingenuity in four ways:

  1. Leaders’ first challenge will possibly be 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 they value experimentation even more highly.
  2. 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.
  3. 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 more as they look to turn crisis into recovery.
  4. 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 bring vital energy into structures and thinking. It could be the stimulus to join dots and quicken the flow of innovative ideas.

We see the value of these ways of thinking and working every day. We see them at our Global Innovation and Technology Centre, where we turn ingenious ideas into physical and digital reality. And we see them as we guide our clients 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.

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