Skip to main content

Innovating our way out of the crisis

Peter Williams

A couple of blog posts ago we highlighted the need for management to get out of the bunker mentality that uncertainty and a rapidly unfolding crisis had pushed us into. It’s important for firms to think about how to trade their way out of this crisis, and not just how they traded into it, if they want a smooth transition to the new normal post virus.

More recently we pointed out that we have a perfect storm for innovation. Demand has collapsed for the old thing while new demand is popping up as we adapt, and the government is (effectively) subsidising innovation by providing unsecured loans and underwriting payroll (via JobKeeper).

Put these together and you have the potential for (some) firms to emerge from the crisis stronger and more capable than they went in. They’ll have a better understanding of what their customers are looking for and a better understanding of their business, resulting in more effective and efficient operations. They’ll have built a broader and richer portfolio of products and services have using the impetus of the crisis to drive innovation and experimentation. New winners and losers will be created, and so on.

That leaves one question unanswered: Where should a firm look for these new opportunities?

Innovations frameworks (Doblin’s Ten Types of Innovation is a good example) are great tools to understand how a firm might innovate. They’re not as helpful when it comes to finding where a firm should innovate. Especially when a firm is dealing with a particular event, a disruption.

Consequentially, we thought that we’d have a go a building a “Mud map for innovation in the work-from-home era”. We’ll break this into ‘where to look?’ and ‘what to look for?’

The thing to consider is old and new things done in old ways or new ways. Given that we’re consultants this would be a two-by-two. We have four options (in no particular order):

  • Doing old things in new ways.
  • Doing new things on old ways.
  • Doing new things in new ways.
  • Doing old things in old ways.

One way to view the current crisis is that firms are being driven from doing old things in old ways (their existing portfolio of products and services).


Doing old things in new ways implies finding new ways to deliver existing products and services. If we use restaurant examples (as that sector was one of the first and hardest hit) then the obvious example is to pivot from on-premises dining to delivery, which many did. Another option is to buy a Mr Whippy van and take the business to the customers, as one enterprising bar-owner did.

Doing new things in old ways involves taking something new for the firm and delivering it with existing skills and processes. Continuing with restaurants, a venue known for exploring global cuisines might repackage their menu into weekly cook-at-home boxes, complimented with how-to-cook videos distributed via social media.

Doing new thing in new ways is probably the most challenging. Management needs to dig deep into their firm, finding processes and employee skills than can be repurposed to support new products and services. They might, for example, find a passion for teaching and decide to lift the curtain a little by creating a series of online cooking classes focused on teaching techniques used in commercial kitchens that are also applicable at home, monetising them as a paid live stream.

If the first part of our mud map can help us understand where to look, then the second part needs to help us find how we might get there.

Given our current stay-at-home lifestyle the logical tool to reach for is globotics: the twin trends of robotics and remote work that are driving the current phase of globalisation. (Current circumstances are only going to accelerate these trends.)

To make sense of these trends we need to unpack them: break each into more, same, and less. With remote work, for example, we can move the work to the client, or the client to the work, or not change anything. Similarly, with automation, we can automate (do) more or less, or leave automation as it is.

Putting automation on the horizontal and remote work on the vertical, we can create a three-by-three.

Let’s take the “Move firm to the client” box first. A restaurant can take the on-premises experience and shift it to the customer’s home, pivoting from hosting groups of friends in the restaurant to facilitating the same group having a (virtual) dinner party by coordinating delivery to each participant’s house. Or, as restrictions lift, facilitate a dinner party in a single house.

A venue might bring customers into the restaurant, virtually, by hosting an online happy hour or chef’s table—“Move client to firm”.

If we consider “Do less”, a burger restaurant might choose to sell burger kits by delivery, rather than complete burgers, doing less for the customer.

We can also do more for the client. Rather than offering a fixed menu, a neighbourhood restaurant might ask the community what family meals its members are interested in, crowdsourcing an ever-changing menu. This would create something between “we’re getting delivery” and “let’s make a hearty lasagne tonight”.

And finally, the four corners of our three-by-three are hybrids. This leads us to the last aspect of our mud map.


Often a service is more complex than “provide meal”. It’s not as easy as considering one aspect of our mud map—we need to consider all aspects at once. What we really need to do is unbundle these complex services, reimagine their parts, and then repackage them into something new.

Take a school camp, for example, imagining that you run a firm that provides week-long camps into upper-primary or lower-secondary school. These camps have a number of goals and contain many distinct activities. The main reason that they’re delivered as a bundle is mainly logistics, the challenge of getting to and from the camp site.

We can unbundle our school camps, breaking out the outcomes and activities. There are skills to be learnt, team building exercises and so on.

Each of these can be considered in isolation, traced on our mud map to determine how the game outcomes could be delivered in new ways, how new outcomes can be delivered in new ways, or even how new outcomes can be delivered in new ways.

Some activities would see children coming to the camp, using virtual meetings to sit around the campfire at night with their friends and a camp facilitator. Materials might be delivered to each child’s house for a ‘bush chemistry’ lesson. We can look for opportunities to do less, and to do more. We can find ways to take the camp to the child, or the child to the camp.

Finally, we can take our transformed activities are rebundle them, creating something makes the most of what we can do one. Rather than an intense one-week activity, we might weave camp activities into two or even four weeks of a school’s programme. 

It quite possible that this new approach to provide more benefits than the old one.

This is something we saw with the recent Partner conference at Deloitte. The need to move the conference online made us realise that moving the conference online created new opportunities, and integrating online and offline would enable the creation of something superior to either approach on its own.

If we’re successfully at innovating our way out of the crisis we might find ourselves in better shape than we went in.