As governments across the world have imposed strict lockdown rules due to Covid-19, company leaders have had to figure out how to manage employees that are working remotely from home. Companies have been using various technologies for video-conferencing, whiteboards and virtual documents. The silver lining could be that leaders are learning how remote work can be more productive than working in a shared office space.     

Company leaders are also learning that an exclusive focus on managing their core business can leave their companies vulnerable to disruption. The hope among many is that after the crisis, leaders will be more open to building innovation ecosystems within their companies. As we emerge from lockdown, leaders will become more willing to explore future opportunities, while exploiting their current success. 

We will wait to see over the coming months, but it is still valuable to ask the questions; how much innovation are we really going to see from companies Post Covid-19? While it is possible that leaders will drive more innovation, it is also possible that leaders will regard this period as an interesting experiment and tell their employees to get back to work. It is important to remember that there will still be a lot of challenges for leaders to manage within their companies after the lockdown. 

Rebuilding London

History can sometimes be instructive when it comes to studying human responses to crises. One such example is the Great Fire of London that happened in September 1666. The fire started in a bakery on Pudding Lane one Sunday morning and destroyed about one third of the city after five days of burning.  After the fire, a lot of citizens and commentators lamented the losses that the city had suffered. 

In contrast, others viewed the Great Fire as an opportunity to rebuild the city with a much better layout than it had before. Several designs for rebuilding the city were proposed. Among them were three designs by Richard Newcourt, Robert Hooke and Captain Valentine Knight who proposed different ways of rebuilding the city by introducing a grid system. A fourth design by John Evelyn proposed that the city be rebuilt in an Italian style with large piazzas and broad avenues.  King Charles II was in favour of the design by Sir Christopher Wren that proposed rebuilding  London with Parisian boulevards and piazzas. 

Creation from Catastrophe: How Architecture Rebuilds Communities
Sir Christopher Wren’s Plan for Rebuilding the City of London after The Great Fire of 1666. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) GETTY

Even with the best of intentions, none of the designs that were proposed were ever used to rebuild London. The main challenge was that property owners started asserting their land rights and the city did not have the resources or appetite to get involved in legal battles with wealthy landowners. Eventually, the city was rebuilt in much the same way as it had always been with medieval street patterns. Anyone who has ever been lost while driving in London will tell you how quaint and annoying the city’s street patterns are.

Beyond Good Intentions

The story of the City of London illustrates that it takes more than good intentions to innovate after a crisis. Most people will be feeling insecure and will do whatever it takes to protect what they had before. Post Covid-19, leaders will be returning to pretty much the same organizations they led before the crisis. The companies will have the same departments, bureaucracy and managers. In addition to that,  leaders will be ultra-focused on helping their companies recover and survive the recession. In such circumstances, it is much more likely that innovation will fall by the wayside. 

To innovate successfully, leaders are going to have to take deliberate steps to give their intrapreneurs a seat at the table and allow them the space to generate and test business ideas. One temptation that leaders must resist, especially after a crisis, is to try and pick the best ideas themselves. It is impossible for any one person to pick the best innovative ideas on day one. Instead, leaders must create the right context for winning ideas to emerge. 

Such a context will only be created if executives can bring alignment among their senior leaders to support intrapreneurs. If any of these senior leaders assert their ‘land rights’ like the wealthy landowners in London, nothing will change. John Kotter notes that organizational change can only happen if there is a powerful guiding coalition of leaders within the company. 

Without such a powerful coalition of leaders driving innovation, intrapreneurs will face resistance throughout the company. Good intentions will not be enough. Post Covid-19, leaders are going to have be intentional and deliberate about creating a culture that supports innovation. If this does not happen, then companies will go straight back to doing what they have always done – create growth by optimizing their currently successful business model.