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Get ready for ‘uncomfortable innovation’

The comfortable don’t innovate.

I’ve been saying that to businesses and writing it on this page for years. Now I have my words ringing in my own ears.

My business depended on gathering people – to teach them, advise them, provoke them to think and do things differently. Suddenly (thank you, coronavirus) no-one can gather in person anywhere.

My team has of course been tracking digital learning and conferencing for a while. We even dabbled in it. But, because the user experience seemed sub-standard, because of the patchiness of broadband connections, and because our traditional channels were doing just fine and consuming all our time, we never took it particularly seriously.

Now we are deeply uncomfortable, so we have no choice. We are at it day and night, learning, experimenting, prototyping. We will become digital very quickly. And we will no doubt develop the digital side to be a sizeable component of our work even in the post-Covid-19 world.

The comfortable don’t innovate – until suddenly they have to. Uncomfortably.

I have been telling restaurants for a long time: you’d better be able to do home deliveries properly. It was a no-brainer, based on watching the demographic and social patterns of modern life: more working mothers; never-ending traffic congestion; more and more in-home entertainment options. People were going to eat out less.

Most restaurants, particularly those not making fast food, didn’t pay attention.

Top chefs hate the idea of takeout food. They are artists, and want their food to be served properly – with panache, at the right temperature, with proper accompaniments, in a nice ambience. I get it – I am the same about my offerings. I want full control over them.

In the pre-corona world, the artists amongst us would do well enough by sticking to physical-world offerings. We ran those things very well, after all; and people could see the superior experience of coming in person. But for restaurants the writing was truly on the wall, well before any viruses stunned them. Analysts have long been estimating that delivery will account for as much as 60 per cent of all restaurant sales in the coming decade.

Business during the time of corona, however, is a different ball game. It’s adapt or die.

For restaurants, it’s not just about linking up with the delivery app guys and sending the same food out on other people’s piki-pikis. It requires quite the overhaul to become a logistics operation. You have to first rethink your menus to create food that can travel well. You have to be able to track and manage orders coming at you from different digital platforms. You need to have people and processes for quality control and order checking before despatch (or you will suffer ruinous returns). You need to invest in people who can run software and online customer care, not just serve plates of food. You need fit-for-purpose containers.

The problem most traditional restaurants have? They don’t have the time to adjust themselves. In a world where everyone is staying home, it’s a do-or-die situation. Either you can deliver takeout very well very quickly, or you close. Perhaps forever. Only the nimble will make it.

Is your business any different? Hello, banks? Remember my many harangues about leading the race to digital, not just showing up at the end? So guess which banks are most comfortable now? The ones who already had class-leading digital products and lots of experience. They have managed to move volumes of transactions online quickly and smoothly. The others? They don’t have the talent or the tested systems or the control mechanisms to migrate to digital quickly, at scale.

If you are willing and able to make rapid adjustments to your business model, stay heartened. The fundamental question to ask is: is my product or service still needed by the world? 

For one small group, the answer is AND HOW! If you’re selling streaming video, virtual conferencing, home delivery, food and essentials, health products – you’re flying right now. Your problem is how to cope.

For a second group, the sad answer is no, not at the moment. If you’re flying planes or running hotels or making cars, you need to go into hibernation for now and return when a virus-free world is ready for you again.

And for a last group (which includes me), you’re still needed – but not in the same way as before. If you can get your stuff to your clients and customers through new channels, quickly, there’s still everything to play for. This is the time to learn new tricks, fast. Learn to innovate, uncomfortably. Are you up for it?

(Sunday Nation, 12 April 2020)

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