How Chaos Sparks Business Innovation

The greatest innovation is created in times of chaos, when opportunity abounds. Many successful business stories began during times of recession, depression, chaos and crisis, such as Uber, Airbnb, WhatsApp, Slack, Pinterest, Square, Disney, Sony and iPod.

In the midst of the unprecedented chaos created by COVID-19 on a global scale, we have witnessed great and inspiring innovation, as local and global businesses innovate ways to stay relevant in industries completely disrupted, if not shut down, by the pandemic and the lockdown.

Find out how you can innovate in your business and industry with a simple three-step system that can transform a time of chaos into a catapult for creation and innovation…

“All great changes are preceded by chaos. The disruption we see in the world is the prelude to emergence.” (Deepak Chopra)

The greatest innovation is created in times of chaos. Many successful business stories began during times of recession, depression, chaos and crisis. Not paralysed by uncertainty or frightened into inaction, these business leaders and companies used chaos as a catapult for creation and innovation.

This was the message from actuary and innovator Dean Furman at SAICA’s recent complimentary virtual leadership series Leadership in a time of crisis.

Chaos creates opportunity

In a crisis situation such as COVID-19, people and companies’ needs have changed significantly. “Priorities have shifted and the way people and businesses operate on a daily basis has changed, creating endless opportunities for individuals and companies to cater to new needs with new services and solutions, or existing solutions offered in different ways,” says Furman. “And that is precisely why there is always so much opportunity where there is chaos and crisis.”

“In the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity” (Sun Tzu)

Business innovation in a time of chaos

Just some examples of innovations born in times of chaos or depression include Uber and Airbnb, WhatsApp, Slack, Pinterest and Square.

“While Uber and Airbnb, for example, did not necessarily plan on being founded during the Great Recession of 2007/2008, the timing worked in their favour. With so many people looking for extra revenue, it suddenly made sense to turn your car into a taxi, or to rent out your spare room – ideas that may have seemed crazy just a few months or years before.” Other examples of companies or products born in times of chaos include Disney, Sony and iPod.

In the last few months, in the midst of the unprecedented chaos created by COVID-19 on a global scale, we have also witnessed great innovation.

COVID-19-driven innovation

Harvard Business School Working Knowledge provides some recent examples of innovation driven by the pandemic: grocery stores installing plexiglass shields at checkouts, restaurants and groceries expanding to takeout and deliveries; video conferences replacing face-to-face meetings and professional consultations; and employee monitoring software ensuring productivity among teams working from home.

The need to mitigate contagion risk has also driven new products and processes, such as robots that deliver medicines and meals and collect bed sheets and rubbish in hospitals; electronic pre-booking to control customer flow for on-premises businesses; a drone program to drop parcels and spray disinfectant developed by e-commerce giant JD; and “Smart” helmets can identify anyone with fever within a five-meter radius.

Even in industries where digital and automation technologies were uncommon, the crisis led to drastic innovations. Teachers from pre-schools to universities digitised content and delivered it online or via phones. Retailers adopted Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology to eliminate the need for checkout. Galleries, cinemas, concert halls, independent musicians and artists found ways to create, perform and connect with their audiences through online platforms.

And out of Africa…

“There is always something new out of Africa” (Pliny the Elder)

Innovations by African businesses and individuals also abound. Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the African Region hosted the first in a series of virtual sessions for innovators across the region to showcase home-grown creative solutions aimed at addressing critical gaps in the response to COVID-19. Eight innovators from Ghana, South Africa, Nigeria, Guinea and Kenya presented their pioneering solutions, all of which have already been implemented in their respective countries, with significant potential to be scaled up further across the region. The innovations ranged from interactive public transport contact tracing apps and dynamic data analytics systems to rapid diagnostic testing kits, mobile testing booths and low-cost critical care beds.

Locally, a Vodacom and Discovery partnership has made free COVID-19 Online Doctor Consultations available to all South Africans. To meet the demand for alcohol-based sanitiser, South African Breweries (SAB) adapted its operations; Sasol developed a new unique blend of alcohol-based chemicals to be used in manufacturing of hand sanitisers; and L’Oréal South Africa began producing hand sanitisers under its natural beauty brand Garnier.

Further local innovations range from virtual wine tastings and game drives, and restaurants that deliver all the ingredients so customers can make their favourite cuisine at home, to local craft markets gone virtual and digital yoga, dance and art lessons.


How to innovate – a three-step system

It is inspiring to read how businesses are innovating ways to stay relevant in industries completely disrupted, if not shut down, by the pandemic and lockdown.

But how do you innovate in your business and industry? Furman provides a three-step system to innovation –

  1. Focus on your clients – meet their changed needs, make their lives better and listen to them.
  2. Challenge the way you do things – develop new products or services, and offer existing services in new ways
  3. Explore the world around you for new possibilities – including the many new enabling technologies that can digitally update old ways of doing things and even extend your client-base globally.

As countless companies have proven before, the chaos of a crisis such as COVID-19 can be a catapult for creation and innovation.

“Just like a catapult, the more you get pulled back, the further and faster you can go forward,” says Furman. “When chaos happens, spend time thinking how it can be used as an opportunity for growth and innovation. This is your time to move forward.”