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Rotman Insights Hub | University of Toronto - Rotman School of Management

Why innovation is critical for businesses navigating the COVID-19 crisis

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Angèle Beausoleil, Azadeh Houshmand, Emma Aiken-Klar

Right now, every organization — whether it’s an essential business working through the pandemic or a company looking to resume regular business operations — is confronting new realities.

Consumer demands are shifting, businesses will need to be redesigned to support a mix of office and remote workers and some companies may have to pivot radically to stay afloat. Getting back to business will require ingenuity and innovation.

A recent webinar, Innovation Readiness: How to Evolve your Organization for the Challenges of COVID-19 and Beyond, featured Angele Beausoleil, the academic director of the Business Design Initiative at the Rotman School, Azadeh Houshmand (MBA ’16), director of client experience design strategy at the Royal Bank of Canada, and Emma Aiken-Klar, SVP of global insights at Idea Couture and a member of the Rotman Business design advisory.

The panel presented their thoughts, grounded in research and practice, on what we should be thinking about when it comes to innovation readiness and navigating the COVID-19 pandemic.

Are you ready for innovation?

Innovation readiness is essentially a measure of your ability to navigate, lead and adapt during a time of change. As you begin looking forward and thinking about how to complete work during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond, Beausoleil suggests assessing your feelings around change.

She recommends reflecting on three main areas:

1) Openness.

Are you up for trying new things? How curious and imaginative are you?

2) Your attitude toward adopting new ways of working.

How easily did you adapt to new ways of working during the COVID-19 pandemic? When are you most likely to embrace new routines? When do you tend to resist?

3) Your ability to adapt to new places.

Reflect on how quickly and easily you adjust to new contexts and work cultures.

Make space for creativity and keep the focus on people

With the pressure to get businesses up and running as soon as possible, it’s tempting to skip the research and ideation stages and pursue projects that sound feasible from the organization’s point of view and easy to get off the ground.

Houshmand encourages companies to pause and think about the people they are ultimately serving.  She urges practitioners to keep the focus on clients and to use this time to “go deeper. Go back to basics. Understand what’s really underneath what people want.”

She explains that by maintaining a human-centric approach in their work and engaging with clients throughout the ideation and design phases, her team is able develop ideas that are desirable to clients, as well as viable and feasible.

That said, the important thing is to get started, even if your idea isn’t perfect or polished just yet. During this time, “people are open to things that aren’t perfect,” Houshmand explains. “They appreciate seeing companies that are trying new things and trying to make something happen.”

Develop a purpose and get ready to pivot quickly

Right now, most if not all companies are caught in difficult moment and are confused by what has and will change. “What can help organizations move through this is a really strong sense of purpose and an understanding of what they are moving towards and what they hope to become when this is over,” Aiken-Klar says.

Small, agile, flexible companies are in a good position to redefine their purpose and pivot quickly. She also expects that many industries might not be able to return to business as usual when the social distancing restrictions lift. For example, consumers may not be eager to dine in packed restaurants as they once had before. Restaurants might need to find other ways to deliver meaningful services to customers, perhaps by designing virtual experiences or expanding delivery options.

“There will be new forms of value creation that will have new kinds of business models with new ways of generating revenue that we can’t imagine right now.” she says.

How to drive innovation in a large organization

The panel offered three quick tips on how to drive innovation in larger companies that are typically slow to adopt change:

1)Think about what you and your team can do to make innovation happen and enact those changes.

“If things are slow that’s okay, you will see things change in a longer term,” says Houshmand. “You need a bit of patience in a bigger organization. Keep going with it.”

2) Leaders: rethink how you define and measure your performance.

In such a challenging time, we can’t measure performance using the typical KPIs and metrics. “Reimagine performance metrics to enable the change, fluidity, agility and pivots that need to happen.” says Aiken-Klar.

3) Give yourself permission to think differently.

“Ask more questions,” says Beausoleil. “Engage in the learning process.”

A final piece of advice: don’t get in the way. “Too many times, we’ve seen organizations fail or not survive because they are so deeply embedded in what in what they see as a truth,” explains Beausoleil. “Markets evolve. Business models must evolve accordingly. If you are stuck in a particular model, give yourself permission to see how to improve it.”


Angele Beausoleil is the academic director of the Business Design Initiative, an emerging education and research centre focused on design-led innovation leadership at Rotman. A former communications designer, senior strategist and innovation lab executive, she applies her extensive industry experience in human-centred design, innovative leadership and creativity to teach executives as well as MBA and Commerce students at Rotman.

Azadeh HoushmandAzadeh Houshmand, (MBA'16) is the director of client experience (CX) design strategy at RBC.

Emma Aiken KlarEmma Aiken-Klar, PhD, is the SVP of global insights at Idea Couture and a Rotman Business Design Initiative Advisory member.