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Innovation Slowed During the Pandemic: A Wharton Study Tells Us How to Fix It.

Innovation Slowed During the Pandemic Innovation Slowed During the Pandemic

Did innovation in new product development slow during the pandemic? Or did the pandemic foster new ways of thinking and creativity—the results of which will explode on the scene in new products and new thinking in the next 12 months? I heard this debate as I walked the aisles of recent trade shows, produced by my all-time favorite people in Colorado and Arizona.

At the shows I heard the normal range of random comments, from which we all try to connect the dots: “I don’t see much new here, just variations on previous themes.” Or, “What is the next gummy?” Or, “Where are the new brands? So many of the hot brands have been bought.” Or, “I am still on back order.” Spoiler alert: Managing back orders of existing products was a reality that could have slowed the development and introduction of new products.

If the dietary supplement industry has produced less innovation than normal, that reality would be supported by the research of McKinsey and Company. McKinsey measured the share of executives who listed each area as a No. 1 or No. 2 priority before and after the pandemic crisis. McKinsey found that, once the pandemic started, executives planned to focus 32 percent less on innovation—but 23 percent more on efficiency—and 22 percent more on organizational health. McKinsey summarized: “Executives have prioritized efficiency and keeping their core business secure and stable over innovation. They expect to reprioritize innovation when the crisis passes, but will it be too late?” See McKinsey Innovation Through Crisis Survey.

Innovation Challenges

The drop in innovation is further supported by a study from The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and reported in the publication Knowledge at Wharton: “If Productivity is up, Why Is Innovation Slowing Down”?

The article reports on a study supervised by Wharton management professor Michael Parke.

This survey-based study was commissioned by Microsoft and conducted by Boston Consulting Group and KRC Research. The study polled about 9,000 managers and employees in large firms in 15 markets across Europe, with about 600 respondents per country. The study finds that “productivity has remained stable or even increased for many companies that shifted to remote work during the coronavirus pandemic. However, innovation has taken a hit.”

On the Wharton Business Daily on SiriusXM, Wharton’s Professor Michael Parke elaborated on problems and solutions:

Problem No. 1: “Both leaders and employees feel more distant from each other.”

Problem No. 2: “The difficulty with collaboration that often comes with working from home. Videoconferencing and instant messaging apps can’t perfectly replicate the dynamics of being together in the same room, hashing out ideas and feeding off the energy of co-workers. It’s a challenge to feel connected, confident and communicate effectively with the team, and we know from a lot of research that creativity and innovation largely happen through collaboration,” said Parke.

Innovation Solutions

But Parke identified three steps managers can take to overcome these challenges. According to Knowledge at Wharton:

1. Collaborative tools: The first is to make sure employees have access to a wide range of collaborative tools. Don’t limit them to Zoom or email, but onboard a number of different platforms so that each employee can find what suits them. “The reasoning here is that when people have the flexibility and variety, they can pick tools that work better for them and their own personality and communication style,” Parke said.

2. Training in remote collaboration: Second, train employees on how to work remotely. It’s not an inherent skill, so a little guidance can go a long way. Parke said the study found that training was “another major factor that contributed to employees’ collaboration effectiveness, their empowerment and their ability to share information across their team.”

3. Establish routines for collaboration and innovation: Finally, establish a routine way of connecting with your team, and stick to it. The study found that workplaces where managers had regular meeting routines—town halls, one-on-one reviews, brainstorming sessions, etc.—were better at transitioning to remote work because they maintained those routines.

So, researchers fully expected to find a drop in productivity. Instead, they found a surprisingly different problem with keeping innovation high. We can apply these insights to our own organizations—even to our own lives. Let’s assume we all have been doing more “outside the box” thinking. Will those new ideas explode on the scene in the next twelve months—or are those ideas not in any pipeline? Professional or personal. Perhaps, given new realities of less physical proximity, we may need to focus on “solutions for virtual innovation” to bring more new ideas to fruition.

Innovation is in the DNA of the dietary supplement industry; that is one reason for our dramatic and consistent growth. That is one reason executives from other industries scout our trade shows so closely. And innovation in the dietary supplement industry by crusaders driven by their own personal journeys will never end. Even at recent trade shows I met doctors who had started their own companies based on a transformative experience of a family member. But what of our established companies? How delayed will be our next rounds of true innovation?

What has been your innovative thinking during the pandemic—professional and personal? Where are you with implementation? Any advice for your colleagues? Let me know! chyland@crnusa.org. NIE

Carl Hyland is vice president of membership development at the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing more than 200 dietary supplement and functional food manufacturers, ingredient suppliers and companies providing services to them.