COVID-19 Unleashes a Time for Innovation

by Pamela Adams, Ph.D.

My business research focuses on a source of innovation that is often overlooked — the users of products themselves. Both people (like you and me) and companies use products that they buy from others in their daily activities. We might not know exactly how something is made, but we know how it is used. That is what is called user knowledge. Not surprisingly, users often come up with great ideas about how to improve these products or how to substitute them with even better solutions. Moms do this a lot when they can’t find anything on the market that meets their needs. Kaitlyn Litchfield, for example, a mom in Massachusetts, created the Original Shopping Cart Vest after many frustrating trips to the supermarket with her small child. She now has a successful online business selling this to other moms with similar needs.

But why is this interesting for you today?

In the wake of this pandemic, recent graduates are going to find a tough job market. And many people who used to work in companies will find themselves without a job. The hope is that these suggestions may provide inspiration to these people to think of new opportunities and ways in which they might unleash their potential for innovation and entrepreneurship simply from the fact that they have knowledge as users.

This is not just about consumer users. It happens in companies, too. My research on high-technology industries shows how people who work in companies that make products using semiconductor devices as component parts (computers, smart phones, cars, planes and even refrigerators) sometimes know more about the best design for these devices than the big companies that make them. That is because they know how the devices will actually be used in the products in which they will be inserted. As it turns out, some of these people end up teaming up with designers to make these improved devices and then to sell them back to their former employers. This is another kind of user applying personal knowledge and experience to innovate and even start a business.

Here are five tips to unleash your innovation:

  1. Listen to your own needs and frustrations (and those of others) about products and services that you use. As you listen, think about possible solutions that might be turned into product ideas. This is a classic talent of entrepreneurs. They find the gaps in current offerings and try to fill those gaps. Just listen to a few episodes of Shark Tank.recent study found that more than 6 percent of adults engage in some form of innovative activity for the products they use. Their time, if translated into the equivalent of R&D spending by companies, would be worth millions of dollars.

Here are a couple of examples: Tonal, a home gym system that attaches to a wall, was founded by a user who just could not make it to the gym with his schedule. So he invented his own home gym. A nurse from West Orange who needed a back brace after suffering an injury invented her own. She now runs a business selling the brace (Zero Compression Back Brace). As users of many products and services, can you think of ways they might be improved? Or can you think of new products that people might need to meet the challenges of life as we cope with COVID-19? Do you think your ideas might present a business opportunity?

  1. Dip into your knowledge and experience about companies. Many people who have recently lost jobs in factories or companies are taking home with them a wealth of knowledge and experience about the products and processes with which they were working. Maybe you have an idea of how to make a better component for the product, or improve the work process with some sort of invention or new software. Or, looking back, maybe you feel that your old supplier just never understood or was not able to give you what you really needed to make your product or service perfect in the job you were doing. Could you potentially become the new supplier for companies like the one where you were working, selling new and improved products for them to buy? Or become a consultant for the old supplier, helping them to improve their products? After all, you know the user business better than suppliers who have never worked in those companies. You have user knowledge and experience that may be put to the task.

If you would like to explore the idea of user innovation further, there is a free course offered by EdX (MIT) on User Innovation.

  1. Look for people who can help you with your ideas. What if you have a good idea, but do not have the technical background to make a product or create a design? Again, with so many people at home, there is a gigantic pool of talent and knowledge to draw upon to help you. Define the kind of help you might need, and begin to reach out through both your own network and through the Internet to find potential partners. SCORE, for example, is a network of volunteer business mentors with experience in multiple fields. They offer a free service to help entrepreneurs get started and grow their businesses. Innovation is almost always a team effort and you may be surprised about what you may find by tapping into the right channels. For all the nurses out there, there is already a community called Maker Nurse that is up and running to help you with your ideas.
  2. Learn the basics of launching a business. Even if you do come up with a product, how do you start a business? You may use this time to learn the basics of starting a business and finding the finances to get you started. You can find many starter courses on entrepreneurship, running a small business, marketing, accounting, financing and the like on LinkedIn Learning, EdX and other education websites. This is probably not the best time to contact the Small Business Association in your area, but once the crisis passes, that is also a good source for advice and financing. Seton Hall, through the Stillman School of Business and its Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, offers many initiatives to help aspiring entrepreneurs of all ages, including certificate programs, specialized courses, pitch contests, summer bootcamps and accelerators.

To get you started, I suggest the following online courses: “LinkedIn Learning: Becoming a Small Business Owner, Entrepreneurship, Employee to Entrepreneur” and “EdX (MIT) Free Courses: Becoming an Entrepreneur, Entrepreneurship 101.”

  1. If you are still working, think about how to innovate in your jobs. No jobs will be left untouched by the effects of the pandemic. Companies will be looking for innovative ideas to help them keep going, and to become more nimble in an age of uncertainty. Try to become the change agent in your company or what is commonly called “Intrapreneur.” Two famous examples that illustrate this point are Post-It Notes (3M) and Gmail (Google), both of which were created by employees during free time they were given to work on side projects. Think about things you might improve as a user of both products and services in your context. If you are able to come up with a good idea, you may be able to tap into the company’s resources to get help in developing the product. The payoff might not be as great, but neither is the risk.

Here are some resources to think about this and to learn how companies encourage and incentivize such innovation: “LinkedIn Learning: Becoming an entrepreneur inside a company” and YouTube video “Intrapreneurship in Business.”

Pamela Adams, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Management at Seton Hall University’s Stillman School of Business. After completing her Ph.D. at Yale University, she joined the faculty of the Business School of Bocconi University in Milan, Italy, and directed their M.B.A. program. Dr. Adams has taught management in many countries including France, Spain and Switzerland. Her research focuses on the management of innovation, entrepreneurship, industry analysis and strategic marketing, and has been published in Organization Science, The Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal, Research Policy, Industry and Innovation, The Oxford Handbook of Innovation Management, and Industrial and Corporate Change. She has also published teaching cases in the Harvard Business School case collection and in strategic marketing textbooks. Dr. Adams has been named Stillman School’s Researcher of the Year in 2018 and 2020, and has received a University Research Grant. Her research was also the subject of her TedX Talk in Lugano, Switzerland.

One of the country’s leading Catholic universities, Seton Hall has been showing the world what great minds can do since 1856. Home to nearly 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students and offering more than 90 rigorous academic programs, Seton Hall’s academic excellence has been singled out for distinction by The Princeton Review, U.S. News & World Report and Bloomberg Businessweek.

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