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How might organizations leverage behavioral change during COVID-19 to innovate, survive, and prosper

People have an inherent distrust of technology, and the deployment of technological innovations often encounters resistance - see the general public uneasiness towards drones for instance. According to the diffusion of innovation theory, adoption of a new behavior does not spread uniformly and immediately throughout a social system. Instead, it unfolds according to a process whereby some people are more prone to adopt the new behavior than others. Some people are willing to tolerate risks and are socially forward, while others display a high degree of skepticism, are reluctant to change, or are bound to tradition. However, the global pandemic is inducing some behavioral changes, at least temporarily, in most segments and layers of society. The behavior is one of the ambiguous aspects of innovation. It is arguably the most critical in determining the changes a new operating model has to succeed and take hold. So, organizations and leadership teams should reflect on the challenges and design responsible and sustainable strategies. There are opportunities to leverage short behavioral shifts to reimagine organizational and supply network processes, and design positive experiences to make the most promising ones stick.

Aerial package fulfillment using drones

Let's briefly think about digital aerial package fulfillment using drones. Besides technical and regulatory aspects and limitations, a critical issue for drone use, in general, is a negative perception of autonomous crewless aircraft concerning privacy and airspace safety. However, the global pandemic is inducing new behavior and producing some positive experiences with aspects of digital supply network processes and ecosystems. Take vulnerable groups stuck at home during the shelter-in-place orders needed to flatten the spread of COVID-19. Suddenly, it was no longer safe for them to leave the house to pick up prescription medicine or essential grocery items. Dining out is not an option, as restaurants are closed. The unprecedented disruptions in daily life routine have compelled some in that segment to interact for the first time with digitally enabled supply network processes that might have been far-fetched for them just a while ago. Image Credit: UPS

For instance, UPS is commencing drone delivery of pharmaceuticals for the largest U.S. retirement community home in Florida, with over 135,000 residents. Meanwhile, some residents in Christiansburg, VA, have been using an app to place orders for medicines, baking goods, and small parcels online while observing stay-at-home guidelines. A drone from Wings (Alphabet's start-up) then delivers the order at home.

A game-changer event

The pandemic has induced some behavioral changes that are not limited to the consumer side of value chains, but include organizational models, life, and work across many sectors and business sizes. The crisis has forced small restaurants, farmers, and large organizations to experiment with different ways to operate during the crisis. For instance, leveraging the availability of drone service in Christiansburg, some small businesses shifted operations online for the first time, connected to third party delivery service platform, and are managing to stay afloat during the stay-at-home orders. Some small businesses have even increased sales. Demand for Wings' fleet of autonomous drones Christiansburg, VA, increased substantially during the lockdown. In Raleigh, NC, a drone-based digital supply network involving UPS, Matternet, and the city's most extensive hospital system has accelerated lab sample deliveries across 11 facilities.

Consumers and leadership teams across all aspects of society are facing challenges, which have both imposed behavioral changes and increased experiments with digital technology. Ordering groceries, shopping, and consuming education online was not a widespread behavior before COVID-19. Many segments of consumers had not adopted or even experimented with digital alternatives to interact with coworkers, complete projects, or satisfy basic needs such as grocery shopping. While online shopping had been growing, many consumers had been unwilling to experiment with these emerging alternatives. All these changed once public health measures restricted business operation to essential sectors and stay-at-home directions. In general, many digital organizational experiments may have long-lasting effects on consumers, operating models, and on how we organize work.

But how leadership teams and organizations can make the promising ones stick?

Organizations looking for an opportunity to transition from their status quo operating models can benefit from the current environment by encouraging their customers and workers to adapt to new digitally-enabled offerings and processes. The secret sauce to capitalize on the shift in behavior occasioned by the pandemic is to leverage digital technology to:

  • Develop digital capabilities

  • Create superior value

  • Provide unique experiences

From a behavioral perspective, positive experiences with such experiments can transform how consumers and workers perceive the value of digitally-enabled processes and supply networks. Think about the Amazon proposition here. The company did not merely create an online shopping platform; it recasts how customers approach the shopping experience. Therefore, leaders seeking to leverage the crisis to build a more prosperous post-pandemic future should consider a human-centric approach to innovation. The focus should not be merely on automating tasks but on reimagining how they create value and leveraging the best between humans and technology to design distinctive digital capabilities. Ultimately, the pandemic has produced the most unfortunate suffering, but also opportunities. The innovations that will take hold are those that unlock substantiated benefits far higher than the comfort of returning to pre-pandemic behavior.

Where should the leadership teams, intrapreneurs, and even entrepreneurs start?

A right starting place to look for insights and patterns is the current pain points. You can find problems and opportunities by focusing on the challenges organizations and customers are facing due to the pandemic. You can then search for solutions to those that represent significant and ongoing expenditures or costs. Are you seeing a behavioral shift occasioned by the pandemic that constitutes a chance to capture a portion of that demand by leveraging digital innovation? You can also find problems and opportunities by examining difficulties in the supply network highlighted or exacerbated during the pandemic. Are there opportunities in the value chain to do things differently or scale experiments that can produce more value sustainably while increasing flexibility and resilience? The pandemic's evolving consequences have highlighted the challenges to normal life and confronted organizations with finding novel approaches to solve organizational and social problems. Focusing on pain points as inspiration, adopting a human-centric approach to design digitally-enabled superior solutions and value propositions, and delivering positive experiences can make behavioral shifts during the pandemic take hold.

Image Source: E. Bernardes

Why care?

Many innovative organizations have recognized opportunities and are quickly shifting their original operating models. Those that successfully leverage the ongoing social experiment and proactively seize the chance to drive or reinforce new behaviors are likely the ones that will come up on top once we emerge from the pandemic. So, leadership teams must navigate the crisis while also planning and investing carefully in the future because their competitors certainly are doing so.

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