(why living with Covid-19 is like hailing a taxi in the rain)
The key to lasting innovation is that it removes pain and frustration.
In 1984 (yes, really) when I first started work in the City, there were certain aspects of life that seemed immutable; neither good nor bad, just the way of things:
- The best source for breaking news was The Evening Standard, which was published in two editions, afternoon and evening.
- The most important part of any address was the A-Z page number and grid reference; and if you didn’t have your A-Z, your only recourse was to ask a cabbie.
- Coins were indispensable, both for tipping cabbies and for making phone calls.
And, speaking of cabbies, who remembers standing in the rain, on a wet evening, straining to spot the all-important yellow light in the darkness, wondering if you should start walking and, if so, in what direction to have the best chance of seeing one coming?
It never occurred to us there might be a better way of doing these things – they were simply the way the world worked. Yes, they were sources of frustration – especially the futility of trying to hail a cab on a rainy evening – but we didn’t expect them to change or go away.
Roll the clock forward to today and we find a series of successful inventions have effectively and permanently removed these frustrations from our lives. We no longer compete for cabs in the street or take map-books with us wherever we go or carry bags of coins for making phone calls.
Of course, it’s not just these inventions (internet, GPS and smartphone) but also the innovative ways they’ve been applied, that have changed our lives for the better. Uber and their competitors are here to stay, not just because they’ve made life easier, but because they’ve actually removed a whole panoply of frustrations.
It seems to me there’s a correlation here. The most lasting innovations, and the ones with the biggest impact on our lives, are often those which address our deepest frustrations.
It is said we will do more to move away from pain than we will to move towards pleasure and I think there is an analogy here with innovation. We embrace innovations that remove painful friction from our lives far more tightly than we do those which simply make things more appealing or marginally easier.
Much innovation falls short of this benchmark
One of the questions I often ask my clients is: what compelling product or service innovations have you introduced in the last year or so, that have delivered significant improvements for your customers, employees or business?
For many companies, it’s a surprisingly difficult question to answer.
It appears a great deal of innovation in recent years has been focused on various aspects of customer service, especially the provision of mobile apps. There’s no question, these innovations have delivered value and made our lives easier, but I wonder how fundamental they really are and to what extent they have really addressed underlying frustrations.
There are exceptions, for example airlines have introduced apps that allow us to book flights, check-in, download boarding passes, clear security and board the plane, without ever having to queue at a check-in desk. A major source of frustration has been removed for many travellers.
But, of course, there are other more serious issues affecting international travel right now, which brings me on to the real point of this article.
Covid-19 frustrations may be a potent catalyst for lasting innovation
The changes in our lives and businesses triggered by Covid-19 have been far-reaching and are here for the long-term. We are adjusting to a hybrid world, with many of us working from home and some back part-time in Covid-secure offices. Plans we had at the start of the year have been overtaken by the crisis, forcing businesses into survival and recovery.
The need to work remotely and interact virtually has accelerated the adoption of digital products and services. For some businesses this has been achieved by bringing forward existing plans, but for many the shift has been reactive, born of necessity rather than design.
The net impact has been unpredictable. The customer experience has been seldom improved and often diminished by these changes. So, how can businesses regain the initiative and find innovative ways to serve their customers, improve life for their employees, and thrive in this much-changed world?
In part, the answer may lie in the realisation above, that the innovations that have had the greatest and most lasting impact have often been those we didn’t know we needed. Innovations that addressed frustrations we thought were unavoidable parts of our lives, like hailing taxis in the rain, navigating by A-Z or queueing for phone-boxes.
Over the last six months, our lives have changed beyond all recognition. As both customers and employees, we now have a host of new frustrations, all of which are heightened by a pervading sense of anxiety.
The million-dollar question is whether companies can harness these new frustrations, as the seeds for fresh innovations that go further than just digital window-dressing, and actually address the underlying issues to make a real difference.
Covid-19 frustrations have far reaching impact
The first step, of course, is to identify these new frustrations and understand what they mean in terms of your own customers’ journeys or employees’ experiences. They might include things like:
- Spending too much time at our computers. My working day used to see me out and about in the City, meeting people, drinking coffee, hosting and attending events, serving clients face-to-face. But now, like so many others, almost all my business is conducted over email and videoconference. I find I’m having to limit my screen-time to avoid eye-fatigue. Having to do everything by computer is becoming a serious issue for me and my current levels of computer time are not sustainable. I am not alone in this.
- Missing out on socialising at work. Isolation is a serious issue for many people right now and, as I discussed in a previous article, we are missing the important social dimension of our working lives. This has got to be addressed, urgently.
- Seeing less of the world and fewer people. More generally, all of our worlds have become much smaller. The risk, as a consequence, is our horizons become narrower. I hear people making the analogy with caged animals. A potent source of frustration.
- Not being able to travel freely. For those of us used to moving freely around Europe and the rest of the world, the current travel restrictions are a major source of frustration. I have family in Holland, Germany and the USA, who I can no longer easily visit.
- Accepting greatly reduced levels of customer service. Increasingly, I see signs of growing impatience with reduced service levels, whether it be cafes with their toilets closed, hotels not servicing guest rooms or travel companies issuing vouchers instead of refunds. Covid-19 cannot become a catch-all excuse for cost-cutting and service reduction.
- Being forced to share personal data. While the objectives of track-and-trace are to be applauded, the enforced sharing of personally identifiable data, without any security or control, is becoming annoying to put it mildly and is probably not sustainable. It’s certainly not GDPR compliant!
- Uncertainty over how things will be done. Everything we do for the first time since lockdown is essentially a new experience and there’s no consistency over what will have changed. It’s hard to delight your customers when they don’t know what to expect.
- Weighing up the risks of everything we do and everyone we meet. Underlying every activity now, is the question of whether it is “covid-secure” and whether the implicit risk is justified by the purpose.
- Trying in vain to sift good information from drama and sensationalism. With so much extreme and conflicting information being thrown at us, and with so much of it influenced by politics and other agendas, we are starting to question everything. This has profound implications for sales and marketing.
These are very general examples and I’m sure you can think of many more. But I think it’s clear we are standing on much shakier ground and experiencing new frustrations and anxieties that affect everything we do.
Building back better and stealing a march on your competitors
The potential silver lining is the opportunity these frustrations present to stimulate real, lasting innovation. The questions every organisation should be asking are:
- How do these frustrations affect your customers and employees?
- How will you identify and harness them to conceive innovative products and services that will enable you to build-back-better and steal a march on your competitors?
So many aspects of our lives have been affected by Covid-19, and we are experiencing so much uncertainty, that business cannot simply pick up where it left off. We cannot assume our customers and employees will fall neatly back into their pre-existing roles.
My sincere hope is the direction we take now will be focused on delivering real, lasting innovation that properly addresses the deep frustrations we are all feeling and consigns them to the same place in history as waiting in the rain to hail a taxi.