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Many businesses have innovated this year out of necessity - implementing new purchase and delivery channels, creating new products and services, and adopting new remote working practices. Whatever the scale of your innovation so far, Fergus Bailie, CEO of Bailie Group, shares with us why innovation should be central to your plans for 2021 and how to get your team on board.

2020 will always be remembered as the year when everything changed – how we work, save, socialise, shop and spend. The velocity and volume of that change was so significant, that it affected everyone, across every sector, to some degree.

So, we’d be wrong – not to mention insensitive – to try and gloss over both the commercial difficulties and personal tragedies that COVID-19 has caused. However, we must also now look forward.

An interesting Ernst & Young article pointed out a couple of months ago that the economic recovery is likely to be slow and uneven. It will be painful for many. But organisations with fast reflexes – the ability to adapt – will be better equipped to navigate whatever happens next. They won’t just survive – they’ll thrive.

The report stated: “The pandemic has presented us with a chance as much as a challenge: a chance to segue from a growth economy to a value-based economy, marked by prioritizing long-term value and the needs of multiple stakeholders over short-term growth.”

So where can we go from here?

Waiting for the certainty of a ‘new normal’, is risky. Incubating some innovative ideas now, is savvy.

What is innovation?

Innovation means different things to different organisations, of course – influenced, not least, by the scale of the problem faced and the ease with which a solution can be defined. But Harvard defines innovation as existing in four categories – and it is imperative that at least one of these exists within the fabric of any business.

  1. Sustaining innovation sees organisations improving their existing capabilities in a familiar market and is therefore most common. Road mapping, R&D and acquisitions all aid progress here.

  2. Disruptive innovation, on the other hand, requires businesses to deliver what people want with less, which requires not just product innovation, but business model evolution too. Pubs and restaurants switching to a takeaway service, is a good example of this.

  3. Then there is breakthrough innovation, which surfaces when the problem is well defined but hard to solve. This requires the exploration of unconventional skill domains and is often typified by Skunk Works and mavericks, who are given a high degree of autonomy and fluidity to explore new projects. This type of innovation is high risk, but high reward, if successful.

  4. And lastly basic research, which is used when the problem and solutions are not well defined. Naturally, partnering with knowledge specialists such as academic research or tech hubs, helps turn a concept into a potentially profitable venture, but again the risk is high.

Which type of innovation suits you?

In deciding which type of innovation to pursue, companies must consider multiple factors – not least, culture.

Traditionally risk averse or bureaucratic organisations may struggle to suddenly encourage their colleagues to come forward, contribute and create, for example. But business leaders have to realise they cannot innovate alone. So, while such firms will have a significant communication challenge on their hands to suddenly foster an environment of strategic agility, they must press forward with the belief that it’s not too late to innovate. And they need to take people with them.

Now is the time to encourage teams to be bold. Experiment. Providing employees with a mechanism to make suggestions without hierarchy, and – crucially – implement them, is a great starting point. And surveys, challenges and partnerships could all help get the conversation moving.

In truth, some brands will only need to adapt a little as a result of COVID-19, whereas others will need to undergo a seismic shift. The advice here cannot therefore be prescriptive. However, the danger of only piecemeal change is that – where markets have shifted dramatically – it may not be enough.

McKinsey's article, Innovation in a crisis: Why it is more critical than ever provides some interesting further reading on this topic.

Fergus Bailie is CEO of Bailie Group - a family-owned group of communications agencies and consultancies.

It was never a given that he would join the family business. He studied law at Durham University, before joining PWC and gaining his chartered accountancy qualification. Here, he spent three years in the audit team and one year in mergers and acquisitions - gaining a solid understanding of the commercial and financial aspects of running an organisation.

Fast forward to 2006 and he became a project manager at Bailie Group, before progressing to Commercial Director, and later MD of one of the group companies (CDS). Bailie Group - a brand that is 158 years old - now employs 340 people.

Contributed by Fergus Bailie
Neina Sheldon
Article by Neina Sheldon
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