3 Ways to Innovate in a Downturn

3 Ways to Innovate in a Downturn

Recessions offer major opportunities for innovators. They can be a good time to introduce game-changing offerings or simple, affordable solutions or make bold, strategic moves. The resource scarcity that typically accompanies recessions forces innovators to do things they should have been doing already: prune prudently, re-feature to cut costs, master smart strategic experiments, and manage the risks of innovating by sharing them with others.

The sense that a recession is coming is growing. If it does, will it cause innovation to slow? Not necessarily. History shows that recessions create three specific opportunities for innovators.

1. Game-Changing Offerings

Startups with radical products or services that “reverb” off of the big event driving the recession can take off. For example, Airbnb, an online marketplace for “places to stay and things to do,” was founded during the height of the recession in 2008. Its service appealed to thrifty millennials looking for a cheap way to travel, as did Uber’s car-sharing model.

Lingering distrust in traditional finance providers after the global financial crisis helped to spur novel payments providers. For example, Jack Dorsey Square (later named Block), the financial services startup known for its square-shaped white credit card reader, founded in 2009. “There is no better time to start a new company or a new idea than a depression or recession,” Dorsey, who also helped to found Twitter, reflected. “There [are] a lot of people who need to get really creative to create something new.” Wind back the clock further. Walt Disney founded his eponymous company in 1923, a time when the world desperately needed hope. It’s reasonable to expect the need for alternative energy sources to combat climate change and reduce dependence on autocracies, greater food safety, and more dependable supply chains to attract today’s entrepreneurial energy.

2. Simple, Affordable Solutions

Downturns can be great times to introduce offerings that connect with consumers who have tighter purse strings or are naturally frugal given continued uncertainty.

There was a recession on the heels of World War II, in 1948–1949, before the post-war boom. In 1948, the McDonald brothers fired all their carhops, closed their flagship store, installed new equipment, and reopened three months later with a novel approach for preparing food. Instead of having a single skilled cook who would custom-make orders, McDonald’s simplified the menu so that less-skilled people could prepare the same thing over and over again. All McDonald’s menu items could be eaten one-handed while consumers were driving.

It was Henry Ford’s assembly-line approach applied to food service. The brothers called the model the “Speedee Service System.” It made it much easier to hire and fire cooks and allowed McDonald’s to lower prices and prepare food faster. The new business model began to take off. In 1953, the company started franchising its stores to other entrepreneurs. Franchise owner Ray Kroc bought out the brothers in 1954 and scaled McDonald’s into today’s global powerhouse.

3. Bold Strategic Moves

Downturns can be great times for established companies to make dramatic changes. Shantanu Narayan took over as the CEO of Adobe in late 2007. The 25-year-old company seemed stuck, with products such as Photoshop and PageMaker stagnating. Nimble software-as-a-service (SaaS) competitors were emerging. And the onslaught of the global financial crises would challenge even the strongest incumbent companies.

In the face of these challenges, Narayen and his team undertook a bold transformation strategy. In 2008, they tested a software-delivered model of Photoshop. A few years later Adobe “burned the boats,” stopped producing packaged software and went to a fully SaaS model. In 2009, Adobe purchased Omniture for approximately $1.8 billion, a price 40% lower than its pre-crisis peak (but 2.5 times above its mid-crisis trough!). That acquisition served as the cornerstone of Adobe’s efforts to build a new growth business related to advertising services and analytics. From 2009 to 2019 Adobe’s revenues tripled, and its stock price rose 29% a year, making it one of the decade’s top transformers.

These three avenues for growth emerged from research recounted in my 2009 book The Silver Lining. The book’s title didn’t just refer to these kinds of opportunities; it referred to the fact that the resource scarcity that typically accompanies recessions forces innovators to do things they should have been doing already:

Plum Prudently

Take a hard look at what is in your innovation portfolio. Cut at least 50% of it. Your resources need to be focused on places where they can have the greatest impact. Many of the projects that you cut are likely to be “zombies” that shuffle along, sucking the innovation life out of your organization. Kill the zombies. It is an absolute no-regret thing to do — you should have done it already, you need to do it now.

Re-feature to Cut Costs

Customer-centricity should be a core component of cost-cutting efforts. After all, you can’t do more with less until you can define what more means. That means figuring out the job to be done of the customer (employee, stakeholder, channel partner).

Master Smart Strategic Experiments

It never has been easier to experiment, which makes it even more important to do it with the proper discipline. Like a good scientist, start with a hypothesis. Design an experiment with clear objectives. Make a prediction about what you think will happen. Test in a way in which you can measure and assess your prediction. You never know for sure, so remember the acronym HOPE (hypothesis, objective, prediction, execution plan).

Share the Innovation Load

People think successful entrepreneurs seek out risk. That’s not right. Successful entrepreneurs smartly management risk by sharing it as widely as they can. Now more than ever, companies should embrace open innovation and find smart ways to collaborate.

In the onslaught of never-ending change, it’s easy for leaders to freeze and focus on survival. Don’t freeze. Seize the silver lining and find unique opportunity to turn today’s ambiguity into tomorrow’s opportunity.

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