How to Keep Exercising Your Innovation Muscle — During a Pandemic

With so many businesses setting their sights on just getting through the pandemic, the idea of investing in innovation might seem a little impractical. But as Bill Gates has written, global innovation will be the key to stopping Covid-19. What’s more, innovation will be the key to surviving for many companies during these tough times, especially over the long term.

McKinsey & Company reports that in past crises, companies that invested in innovation delivered superior growth and performance postcrisis. Because once the “new normal” arrives, the old way of doing things might no longer suffice. That’s why with my team at Jotform, we pushed ourselves to roll out a new product this past fall to keep up with our users’ evolving needs.

The good news for entrepreneurs is that we can hone the characteristics of the best innovators. In fact, according to Harvard Business Review, studies of identical twins separated at birth found that our creative thinking ability comes one-third from genetics and two-thirds through learning.

Here are some best practices for exercising your innovation muscle during a pandemic.

1. Act like an anthropologist

The best innovators are obsessed with gathering as much information as possible about customers, suppliers and even competitors. This is critical for understanding your customers’ evolving needs and adjusting to meet them. Any behavioral change or quirk is worth digging into. Consider, for example, mopping the floor — already a time-consuming chore, but anthropologists working with Procter & Gamble noticed that people were taking even more time to clean the mop itself. This led to the introduction of Swiffer, which, according to Zapier’s blog, is one of P&G’s most popular products with over $500 million in annual sales. Or, take General Motors: their recent pledge to phase out gas-powered vehicles and switch to cars and trucks with zero tailpipe emissions by 2035 was no doubt inspired by consumers’ growing interest in fighting climate change.

Explains HBR, “In observing others, [innovative entrepreneurs] act like anthropologists and social scientists.” These days, paying extra close attention signals to customers that you have a handle on the evolving pandemic situation and are actively working to better help them.

We’ve already seen businesses come up with innovative ways to engage with customers and gather information during the pandemic. For example, live-streaming content on social media or adding a live-chat option to your business website. Even something as simple as a form at the end of an email or newsletter can be a quick yet effective method to gather insight and keep innovating.

2. Tweak your business model

Recent research found that among Chinese consumers, in-store buying dropped a whopping 70 percent when shelter-in-place restrictions went into effect. And later, only about half of in-store buying resumed once the national lockdown was lifted. Needless to say, if the bulk of your business came from brick-and-mortar sales, it would be crucial to start investing in ways to expand the online customer experience.

Or, consider Spotify: before the pandemic, the Swedish company relied heavily on advertising revenue (those ads that pop up in the middle of your playlist — at least for free users). When advertisers started slashing their budgets and pulling ads, Spotify tweaked its business model in several ways, including offering original podcasts.

The best innovators regularly revisit their business model to figure out what needs to be tweaked and how they might need to pivot. As HBR explains, “a pivot must align the firm with one or more of the long-term trends created or intensified by the pandemic, including remote work, shorter supply chains, social distancing, consumer introspection, and enhanced use of technology.” If you’re not thinking about the viability of your business model, the pandemic will quickly test it for you and determine whether you’ve made adjustments for the new normal.

3. Find new ways to network

In my experience, this seems to be the most overlooked — but also, the most critical — behavior of the strongest innovators. They are constantly networking and exchanging ideas with people from different backgrounds and different perspectives to cross-pollinate their budding ideas. And, as Caleb Watney, a resident fellow at the R Street Institute, recently suggested in The Atlantic, the exodus from once-bustling creative hubs like Silicon Valley — including companies like Facebook, Twitter, Shopify, and Quora allowing employees to work from home permanently — could be an ominous sign for the future of innovation.

Watney writes that according to research: “The ten most innovative cities in the United States account for 23 percent of the national population, but for 48 percent of its patents and 33 percent of its gross domestic product.”

One way to fight the decline in innovation in light of changing work conditions is to find new means of networking and exchanging ideas, including virtually.

With our employees at Jotform, we have a standing Friday demo day, where we all join a video conference and talk about any new projects or ideas our teams have been kicking around. To connect beyond your company, you can join a networking community, like Lunchclub, which offers AI-powered connections based on your interests and then organizes one-on-one video meetings with other professionals. Or, you can even try attending a virtual conference this year — all of the networking, none of the travel costs.

It may be a change from the “before times,” but virtual networking can be a great way to become inspired by new ideas and perspectives, especially while we wait to see what work conditions look like in the next normal.

Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform and the bestselling author of Automate Your Busywork. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups. He loves to hear from Jotform users. You can reach Aytekin from his official website

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