Coronavirus – An Innovation Opportunity

Doing business in the midst of an epidemic will be a significant challenge. But it’s also a huge opportunity for innovation

We are seeing the global spread of COVID19 (Coronavirus) from the Hubei province of China with over 100,000 cases and 3,400 deaths attributed to the virus worldwide. At present China has had the majority of these cases, but numbers continue to rise globally. Up to date daily figures are provided by the World Health Organization.

China has addressed the virus situation head on with major city lock downs, extending the Chinese New Year holiday, restricting travel and closing places of work. The experience of dealing with this outbreak and the previous experience of SARs epidemic in 2002-3 can provide us with considerable learnings.

The impact of the coronavirus on people and businesses will be a major challenge, but we can also use it as an opportunity to develop our processes and innovate.

Alibaba and SARS

The SARS epidemic in 2002 caused the shutdown of many businesses as the infection spread. Alibaba had to quarantine its staff for months, and its founder Jack Ma spoke about the challenges of working from home in the early days of online availability. Yet there were also opportunities. Alibaba grasped the chance to develop B2B trading between China, USA and other countries as travel was restricted. The business became more agile, learned how to manage internal communications more effectively and innovate at a rapid pace.

Since this time, Alibaba and Ant Financial has grown to be the most innovative global businesses with online retail, delivery, cloud computing, payment platforms and many more. It’s therefore an example of how businesses can innovate even at difficult times such as the current coronavirus epidemic.

From virus to opportunity

From my discussions with the people who have been through the massive challenges of the virus in China in the last few weeks and who faced SARS many years ago I would pick key learnings:

    • Support your staff, their families and communities. One venture I spoke to in China had the first task of contacting all staff to understand which provinces they were travelling from and family care commitments. If people have to self-isolate due to an infection risk and they do not come into work you should give clear guidance and support with appropriate health advice but also practical advice like delivery services. You do not want them to not come to work and just go to coffee shops.


    • Cost control will be very important to ensure business survival. There could still be people and resources available that cannot be used to their full potential in the business as it currently stands. Start thinking, how can they be effectively used to build strength for the future?


    • Enable remote working with integrated video, task applications, and process improvement. Many companies have some systems that they occasionally use for remote working, but be proactive now to review the systems, get feedback and change the processes to make them more effective. One CEO I spoke to in China said only 20% of their staff have currently been allowed back to the workplace. With so many people at home or other locations, it’s important to review and update of ways of working.


    • Show leadership in your business and industry to survive and take the opportunities that are out there. Many sectors, such as event organisers, schools and retail are going to be severely impacted by these circumstances. Use this to change how customers and suppliers work with you. Retail, for example, could drive a more engaging direct relationship with customers by way of video calls, or their home delivery practices. If you need some inspiration, in China pivoted from traditional retail to online as a result of the SARS virus and now has a market cap of around $65bn.


    • Implement new ways of working around agile practices. To make the change, create small, empowered, and focussed teams with short term pragmatic goals. This could be to launch an online event, service or product sales cycle to replace physical interactions that will be disrupted by the virus. Then learn and improve for the next iteration. We’ve seen this confer significant benefits.


    • Use the opportunity to train and look at product and service development. I am seeing businesses in China that have used the opportunity while disrupted from the normal activities to review their processes and implement at a faster pace. For example, a financial services business that is facing regulatory change has seized the chance to develop and implement training. Another venture in the Electric Vehicle sector is using the opportunity to develop propositions in distributed energy management.


    • ‘Think outside the box’ and innovate. Consider how insights from other industries and new technologies can be applied to your business which would not be done in normal times. I often say it is better to ‘think in other people’s boxes’ not just outside your box.

This is going to be a difficult time for many people and for businesses in their normal activities. The question you need to ask yourself is, how can you make your business more resilient and take new opportunities?

As we have seen with Alibaba and many other companies, it is possible to flourish in the midst of adversity. People in an organisation can come together to address the situation, learn, innovate and become far stronger in the long run.

Please do share your thoughts and get in touch, [email protected]

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