Disruption as a source of innovation

March 20, 2020

The first in a series of articles, of how to see the opportunities for innovation, that the Coronavirus is laying bare.

Never before has human behaviour become so immediately observable. One of the most vivid images is that of empty store shelves and people panic buying toilet paper in countries where there was yet no public guidelines on what to do, and why.

At least in developed economies, there have to date been no reports of failed supply chains for essential goods, so the action of people is based on nothing more than lack of understanding of what is happening, and what to do about it.

Office workers have been forced into the home office. And many quickly discovered, that home office’ing was OK for a few hours or a day. To do it everyday requires a fundamental rethink about where in the home to work, what chair you need, what to do about the kids that are also at home, and how to handle a work-life balance when everything is happening in a very limited space. Let alone that everyone in the household is using the same wi-fi at the same time.

Food delivery is having a booming moment, where it is available. And grocery delivery, since this is the one thing no-one can avoid. We all need to eat and in essence, the supermarket is where people and virus are most likely to meet. Visiting the supermarket, you can observe people trying to keep their distance while at the same time reaching for the same yoghurt that you were looking at. Body contortions ensue.

Government messaging affects behaviour. Where it is unequivocal and timely, it is calming. Where it is ambiguous or full of bullshit, it causes confusion and sows discord between people who believe different opinions. Which then by default triggers a chain reaction that leads to panic buying of 200 rolls of toilet paper. And misplaced social judgement, as the case of the lady calling out a man with a jumbo trolley full of toilet paper, who turned out to be stocking the shelves, not emptying them.

Similarly, taking into account human behaviour before making announcements can lead to unintended consequences. In Belgium the order to close all bars from the next evening at midnight lead to “lockdown” parties where people gathered, rather than dispersed.

In short, where there is human behaviour and adaptation going on, there is also opportunity. Once we get over our common misery, there will be some temporary changes in behaviour, and some will be permanent. Looking for those changes, that can be continued and improved can create new businesses and improve old one’s. Considering the instant and positive impact the reduced mobility of people has had on the environment, it really shows what collective action can do. Could we maintain this positive environmental effect once we all come out of quarantine? That would be positive disruptive innovation indeed.