Instinct for survival?

With the shutdown of several sectors of the economy, the pandemic forces reflection on options for resuming activities: restart or reinvent? In a series that started on Wednesday, Le Devoir has teamed up with the journal Gestion and is publishing sections of a special report on these crucial issues. Today, the third of four texts: the way companies innovate when their world changes.


Dr Horacio Arruda | Net Worth Space
The provincial director of public health for the province, Dr. Horacio Arruda.
In just a few hours, everyday life can change dramatically. Do companies that want to survive a crisis have to be creative? Gestion took advantage of the sanitary confinement to speak remotely with Laurent Simon, full professor in the Department of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at HEC Montréal.

Skilled companies know how to question their practices and show creativity. But what do we mean by "innovative business"?

An innovative company is an organization capable of producing something new when it needs it. Beyond the production of ideas, this corresponds to the ability to launch new products, to experiment with new processes or to completely rethink its strategic model. The central element is the real ability to take the necessary steps and initiate the processes necessary to create something new, whether it be a private company, a public company, a university, a hospital, an SME or a self-employed worker.

What is the particular dynamic of innovation in times of crisis?

During a difficult period, even during a crisis of the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic, two characteristics specific to innovation change radically: the relationship to time and the relationship to resources. Businesses are then subject to completely different constraints from what they are used to in terms of available time and access to resources. So, to innovate in times of crisis is to react immediately, to adapt in the present moment: the relationship to time is transformed, and this is unprecedented if we evoke the context of the pandemic. As organizations develop innovation strategies for the medium and long term, crises require rapid and improvised adaptation, tinkered with, but which certainly has its virtues. The relationship with resources undergoes the same upheaval: overnight, they are reallocated to more urgent needs.

 An innovative company is an organization capable of producing something new when it needs it

- Laurent Simon
In Canada, this is exactly what the federal and provincial governments had to do from the start of the coronavirus pandemic. We could discuss the government's reaction at length, but we are already retaining an economic innovation: the generalized minimum income. We’ll see what’s left afterwards, but we’re rediscovering the state. However, the state is a great historical innovation that we regularly question. It’s great to realize, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, that we could not get through this crisis without a State that plays its role with relevance! The state and our rulers maintain institutions, orchestrate social life, remind us that we are dependent on each other.

So a state of emergency imposes specific conditions for innovation?

Yes. In such a context, an innovation model similar to hacking is used, in the sense of "hijacking a functionality", which is often used in times of crisis. The innovation of frugal, DIY, "do it yourself" is also essential. Many people in their basement prepare their disinfectant gel themselves or sew their protective masks. There is the case of this Ottawa area anesthetist who managed to operate two respirators simultaneously from a single device. Normally, the respirator manufacturer would have found such use unwelcome, but in the context of a pandemic, when time is short and resources are scarce, tinkering is perfectly justified.

Consult the complete file of the review "Gestion"
Since necessity rules, as the saying goes, this need for urgent solutions captures the attention of everyone in organizations, and efforts are devoted exclusively to this drive for innovation. While innovation normally takes second, third, or even tenth priority, crises redefine priorities. Take the example of the Ebola virus a few years ago, an epidemic that had prompted the accelerated development of a vaccine, supported by technological, organizational and institutional innovation. This race legitimized shortcuts by overriding certain regulations.

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