It’s time for innovation or stagnation

Photo: Getty Images/nensuria
Dec 16, 2020

Through a special arrangement, presented here for discussion is an excerpt of a current article from the blog of Dave Wendland, VP, strategic relations at Hamacher Resource Group. The article first appeared on

“In the last six months alone, we’ve probably experienced 10 years’ worth of change,” Allan Thygesen, president, Americas, Google.

The a-ha moment about this statement, recently made in a blog entry, was simply that stagnation is not a viable option in light of unprecedented industry dynamics and that a commitment to innovation is imperative.

That’s at least according to a recent virtual roundtable I hosted with a group of retail supply chain executives on the topic of innovation and how organizations are thinking outside the box to foster creativity in light of working-from-home (WFH) limitations.

From delayed launches to expansions put on hold, COVID-19 has caused many organizations to scrap plenty of plans. In fact, many have shifted from planning for the future to putting out immediate fires — thus putting innovation at risk.

Yet, I’m also seeing a number of companies muscling through these uncertain times and announcing major directional shifts.

The roundtable participants agreed on a series of critical questions every organization should be asking while planning their strategy meetings for the coming year as they initiate steps to foster creative collaboration among staff, even if they aren’t in the same room:

  • Has your organization created a culture of innovation?
  • What breakthrough inspiration has affected your business?
  • Does a volatile time like we are currently in the midst of make it more or less difficult to be creative?
  • What are some of the ways you have overcome obstacles or bolstered inventive thinking?
  • What are you waiting for? In other words, rethink readiness.

So, how do you prepare your business for what’s next, and how do you balance risk-reward?

It isn’t by demanding inventive thinking or sequestering teams of associates in a room and encouraging them to think up a bunch of crazy concepts. True innovation begins with a clear, stated purpose. And a common language must be established that not only defines what is meant by innovation but also what behaviors are expected. A thoughtful and disciplined approach will accelerate the process and produce far better outcomes.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What advice can you offer for driving iterative or disruptive innovation in a remote work environment? What critical questions should organizations be asking to ensure creative collaboration is being stimulated among teams?

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29 Comments on "It’s time for innovation or stagnation"

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Di Di Chan

Don’t think about innovation as the destination. The business is always the destination. Innovations are simply the method or tool that solves existing problems better. Ask: how to solve a specific pain point? How to improve on the current process? How to enable shoppers and staff to feel safer and more welcomed in stores? How to better retain and engage with customers? How to better attract new customers? Lead with essential business questions and be open to innovative solutions.

Ian Percy

Here’s the cornerstone principle: It’s ALWAYS about the energy.

Poorly executed “innovations” can drain organizational energy as easily as stagnation can. When we watch sports it is blatantly obvious when the “energy” switches from one team to the other. I believe that is true in retail as well. Lose energy and you lose the game.

There are times to move and there are times to stay still. Both can be energizing if led wisely.

Ralph Jacobson

Adversity drives innovation to overcome that adversity, if allowed and encouraged. Remote work should not greatly interfere with that fact. Consistent, collaborative virtual team meetings with defined agenda and outcomes will always help move the ball to the goal line.

Cathy Hotka

Retailers have really stepped up during COVID-19. One jewelry brand, facing months of COVID-19-related closures, turned to telephone sales successfully. I’ve been collecting their stories and the industry’s response has really been impressive. The innovation won’t stall, either.

Perry Kramer

Adversity and difficult times are often some of the key ingredients in innovation. It is also important to remember that innovation comes in all shapes and sizes from the invention of the internet and barcode technology to simple things like automated door openers. Specific to the last 12 months, the world has learned to shorten and streamline decision cycles which are often one of the largest impediments to innovation. Unless a company is hanging on by its last threads there will never be a better time to invest in and experiment with innovation.

Ryan Mathews

When is stagnation ever a “viable option”? Hint: Never! Fifty years ago in “Future Shock” Alvin Toffler wrote that what separated modern times from past eras was change in the rate of change — and that was in a pre-digital world. Innovation is never iterative, it’s continuous. As to the impact of remote work environments, let’s not forget some people are more creative and innovative on their own time and their own terms. The trick is to find a way to bring all those diverse innovations together, think an exercise in creativity management rather than knowledge management. There are any number of ways to do this but they all share one common characteristic — somebody in a position of authority who relishes change, knows how to encourage creativity, and has a very high tolerance for failure.

Bob Amster

If we have been watching carefully, there has been a significant amount of innovation under these circumstances but only on the part of some — not all, not many — retailers. In fact, some of the nuances they have instituted would not have been implemented without significant ROI studies, or dismissed out of hand. There is no one answer to this question. One of our colleagues calls this behavior the difference between leaders and laggards.

Adrian Weidmann

2020 has been a year of time compression for many disciplines. I was engaged by Dairy Queen several years ago and part of that engagement was to design what the Dairy Queen shopping experience would be seven to 10 years in the future. In speaking with my client at Dairy Queen during this past year, she stated that many of the experiences we projected would take seven to 10 years to adopt and implement have taken seven to 10 months! It took a microbe to force cultural and behavioral change – forced innovation. Every sector of our economy should take heed — have the guts to innovate or become a footnote in the pages of retail history.

Dave Wendland

Thanks for sharing this, Adrian. We all know of operations that have moved and adapted at “warp speed” over the past year … and those are indeed the ones that will remain.

Chuck Ehredt
There are certainly companies that have stagnated during the past eight months – those that have plenty of excuses for not proceeding with plans. However I have to say that I’ve seen much more innovation in the past eight months than during any other period during the past 30 years. Much of that was driven by the adverse business climate caused by COVID-19, but I also believe leaders have been much more efficient with their time and used that not only to solve short-term problems, but also plan for the future. As for questions, I think the key ones are related to “What must my business know in three to five years’ time to ensure we can keep customers engaged and feeling a high level of perceived value?” The answer to this question is almost always having a comprehensive view of the customer and the technology to serve them when they have needs. Innovating around this problem involves systems, but mostly it involves collaboration – among colleagues, but also among complementary brands, that together can… Read more »
David Naumann
David Naumann
Marketing Strategy Lead - Retail, Travel & Distribution, Verizon
2 years 1 month ago

Adversity should not disrupt innovation, it should accelerate it! During uncertain times and economic shifts, companies need to rethink processes, product assortments and product extensions, optimize everything and — most of all — do everything with an agile mindset. Remote work environments can make innovation more difficult in some respects as brainstorming sessions may be less effective, but this is the time to find innovative processes to spark innovation.

Virtual collaborative sessions can work but the challenge is people talking over each other. Making sure everyone gets a chance to contribute is imperative. Encouraging employees to block off an hour or two every week for individual brainstorming sessions to ponder new ways of doing things or how things can be improved is also valuable. These can be open-ended or have a topic directed from management.

Gene Detroyer

While some jobs do not require interaction with others and can be done anywhere, when it comes to innovation and new ideas the situation is very different.

I have written several times about my concern for companies being able to innovate (progress) within remote working conditions. My strong feelings are based on experience. I can’t think of one successful innovation, new product, new opportunity, or new selling technique that I have been involved in where the final idea didn’t percolate through spontaneous interactions with multiple people involved.

That is why the most innovative companies structure their facilities in a way that “forces” people to interact spontaneously. To me, the eureka solutions were more likely to come during lunch or a coffee break than in a formal meeting.

Dave Wendland

Your comment regarding spontaneous innovation is absolutely correct, Gene. Having done my share of team improvisational comedy, spontaneity and willingness to adjust is what drove our most successful scenes.

In business, leaders must listen carefully, react quickly with conviction, and foster a motivating culture that drives results.

Scott Norris

I will say, though, that the ability to “deep dive” into research and constructing models uninterrupted by mundane tasks and reporting that a couple months of work-from-home gifted me with this spring – that I was able to bring back to the bigger team – was what gave us several “aha” initiatives that we are working into 2021 product launches as well as fundamental changes in our sales organization. Without that time to explore, ask questions, and really get deep in the weeds for days and days, we wouldn’t have a go-forward plan now to come out of the pandemic better.

Jeff Sward

I think the article has it exactly correct when it says business is about balancing risk-reward rather than eliminating risk. Risk is a differentiator and therefore is potentially a business’s or a brand’s best friend. But that means recognizing that there are levels of risk with different paths and different outcomes. You actually have to have a pretty good awareness of knowing what you don’t know, so it becomes about probing, exploring, testing for friction and reward. And a remote work environment probably has to set up some kind of mechanism for the internal pressure testing of different ideas. This pressure testing might have taken place naturally during the informal day to day interaction in the office, but now it needs enough daylight to be sure it continues to be a 360-degree process.

Matthew Pavich

Sometimes it takes a disruptive event like COVID-19 to drive real innovation for a lot of businesses. There is no doubt that the past several months have forced a lot of retailers to innovate in order to survive and/or remain relevant. The fact that these innovations have occurred via a remote work environment is not only an innovation in and of itself, but proves that creative collaboration can be done using a different approach. One thing is clear – the best retailers are using this uniquely disruptive moment to get better and to try new things. They are investing in new processes, analytics, solutions and operating models that they may not have considered a year ago and they are building a foundation for a better future.

Dave Wendland

There is a stark contrast between those organizations aggressively reinventing themselves, investing in new frontiers, and reimagining their future state AND others sitting on the sidelines hoping that things return to the way they’ve always been. The chasm between what fellow BrainTruster Bob Amster called “Leaders and Laggards” is widening each and every day.

Lisa Goller

When everything’s in flux, it’s the ideal opportunity to innovate.

To inspire creative collaboration, successful leaders create an atmosphere in which employees feel safe enough to take risks, wherever they work. Encouraging and rewarding creativity among remote teams could counter barriers, like stifled employees held back by strict obedience to rules, perfectionism or fear of failure.

Critical questions for leaders to ask include:

  • “What drives you nuts?,” which could spark discussions about process re-engineering for streamlining and efficiency;
  • “Do you love it?,” which taps into how workers feel about the quality of the team’s output and how they could make incremental or profound improvements; and
  • “What do our customers say?,” which focuses the team on delighting their audience rather than maintaining a mindless, destructive tradition of “This is how we’ve always done things.”

Volatility is opportunity. It’s time companies let go of the status quo.

Mohamed Amer, PhD

Stagnation, as in lack of growth or activity, signals the death knell of any organism or business entity. The real question is the rate of innovation — how well an organization can generate and apply innovation across the business. Inward organizational focus leads to stagnation. The driving energy (thank you, Ian) lies outside the company, and anticipating the future always requires innovating what you’re doing today, even if it no longer resembles what you’ve done in the past.

Shep Hyken

It’s not just change that we’ve been experiencing. It’s adaption to existing technologies. Much of what we are calling new was here before COVID-19. The pandemic accelerated the adaption and adoption of these technologies. Without the pandemic, we would have been doing what we’re doing three to five years from now. And many retailers were in trouble before the pandemic. The loss of foot-traffic in malls was already a problem. So that is what brings us to the present. As for innovation, it is in challenging times like these that a boom innovation takes place. Look back at disrupted economies, wars, etc., and you will find big strides in innovation took place.

Peter Charness

If you’re standing still you’ll get run over. (Going backwards is worse.) There are two pre-requisites to innovating: creating a culture of innovation where failing is considered a learning experience, and providing the tools and in particular the time for the organization to experiment. Edison said it: Never get discouraged if you fail, learn from it. Keep trying.

Brandon Rael

Purpose-driven innovation strategies should be at the heart of any organizational mission statement. Stagnation, as Jeff Bezos famously stated, is equal to death. In today’s relentlessly changing society, it always has to be “day one” for organizations.

The most adverse and challenging situations result in some of the most impressive innovations. For example, the challenges attributed to the 2008-9 financial crisis led to a flood of innovative business models such as Airbnb, WeWork, and the entire gig economic model. It will be fascinating to see what comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic as retailers and all businesses adjust to the ever-changing daily normal.

Ricardo Belmar
Innovation is a constant process – it’s never “finished” – so in some ways it’s a moving target. In my conversations with retailers, I make the point that this isn’t a negative, in fact, it’s a good thing because you’re always moving the target ahead of where you are. It forces you to think towards the future of where you want to be versus where you can get to tomorrow. This year has certainly been disruptive to this process, but I find that if anything it is helping (one might say forcing) innovation to occur at a much more rapid pace. I’ve lost count of how many retailers have told me they used to take six months to roll out a new in-store service or function but this year they accomplished major projects in six weeks or less, often counted in days, not even weeks. Better still, those projects have been wildly successful despite the accelerated timeline. Net-net, those retailers learned how to overcome silos and internal struggles to become much more agile in terms… Read more »
Doug Garnett

The question to ask is: What strategic opportunity has been opened for your company by the pandemic? After all, innovation is not a goal in and of itself. Innovation ONLY matters if it has strategic value.

So yesterday we heard that Starbucks is planning a new round of store openings over the next years. I find that to be a smart strategic move. Is it innovative? That doesn’t matter — what matters is whether the changes help the retailer end up in a stronger, more profitable position.

We also need to pay attention to why so much change happened so quickly this year: The bureaucracy was forced out of the way. When survival is needed, things happen.

So don’t ask your “innovation” group to figure out the way forward — every department is involved at this point and should continue to be.

Gary Sankary
Creativity and innovation in organizations require individuals and teams to work in collaborative reciprocal relationships. Too often teams and individuals attack problems in silos, pursuing parallel tracks to a goal. The pandemic has made this worse as people work alone and have individual focus on a problem. It’s too easy to just work away and not collaborate until they’ve come up with a solution. When that solution competes with others, as it always does, there’s duplicated work and negotiation that slows down implementation. In a reciprocal relationship there are dependencies for ideals and deliverables that cross teams and individuals. These dependencies drive collaboration throughout the process and I believe, leads to better results, faster. Leadership needs to accentuate those dependencies that drive collaboration. We have seen a deepening divide during the pandemic between the retailers who are winning and those who aren’t. Some of that can certainly can be attributed to governmental regulations and restrictions, but only some of it. There is a clear correlation between innovation and agility, and success and those retailers who… Read more »
Sterling Hawkins

What should be clear to just about every company is how fast they’re capable of innovating. I’ve seen projects that would have taken years completed in a matter of months. Continuing that dynamic will serve them well as the outside pace of change is only accelerating.

The single greatest place to look for innovation is around problems, issues and obstacles (for the company, for the industry and for customers). Approached correctly, those problems are literally the door to disruptive innovation.

Casey Craig

Remote teams don’t spell the end of creative collaboration that leads to exciting innovation. My company has been working with globally dispersed teams for years, and the key to a strong culture and collaborative work is having a shared development mindset across all teams, time zones, and projects.

When everyone knows the end objective, team members can collaborate creatively at every step of the process. Organizations and leaders must be consistently asking their teams how they view their work in the grand scheme of a project and ensuring that desired outcomes are understood and communicated to foster creative problem-solving. Not only will teams be empowered, but innovative digital products are created better, faster, and ultimately drive more value for the business.

Mark Price
Mark Price
Chief Data Officer, CaringBridge
2 years 1 month ago

We have found that a WFH environment does not hamper innovation. The key is that WFH must take advantage of the benefits of at home instead of focusing on the liabilities. Companies must grant their key employees specific “focus” time at home in order for them to read, think and write. Then those employees must be able to form into work groups to tackle pressing issues and invent new solutions.

The key questions to answer are:

  1. What restrictions did we face physically that we are now free of, in a digital world?
  2. How have our customers’ needs changed in the past nine months? Which of those needs and behaviors will stick in the future?
  3. How can we repurpose existing resources/capabilities to meet those needs faster than we ever could?
Andrey Podgornov
2 years 1 month ago

Good article! Without innovation, you really are in second place right away. But I think you missed one point. You’re talking about how companies can organize employees to work remotely so that they can continue to be creative. But they are “inside,” and some innovations are much better to offer “outside.” This was the case with many of our clients. Until we told them how to digitize and optimize their operations, they had no idea they could do it.

"Here's the cornerstone principle: It's ALWAYS about the energy. "

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