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How to maintain focus on innovation even during a crisis

By Karen O’Leonard and Paige Seaborn | December 3, 2020

Companies looking to succeed and flourish in the post-pandemic world will require innovation that starts today.
Future of Work|Employee Experience
Risque de pandémie

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About Willis Towers Watson’s Horizons initiative

The Horizons innovation challenge is designed to encourage colleague collaboration on new products and solutions to meet the needs of our clients now and in the future. It’s also an opportunity for colleagues to contribute to growth and new revenue generation. The initiative supports our goal of continually learning, testing, optimizing and sharing insights in order to better help clients meet challenges in an ever-changing world — throughout this period of crisis and beyond.

Amid a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s hard to focus on anything but the current situation. With workplaces empty, supply chains severely disrupted and businesses facing cash-flow problems, if they’re still in business at all, the pandemic is unlike any crisis most of us have experienced in our lifetime.

In these exceptionally trying times, we naturally want to focus on the problems at hand — problems that must be dealt with immediately and that, under the current circumstances, do not have obvious or quick solutions. For many businesses, this means focusing only on staying above water.

Certainly, the current pandemic situation requires innovation — the kind of innovation that produces solutions for the immediate problems at hand and that isn’t necessarily focused on long-term growth. But we also need to carve out time to think ahead to a post-pandemic world when life is quite different and consider what solutions may be required that need to get started now.

Over the past several months, most organizations, including ours, scrambled to cope with extreme workplace, financial and economic shifts. Since our offices closed and we began working from home, we have been collaborating virtually to keep innovation thriving. Over the past seven months, we learned a great deal about:

  • Planning for virtual innovation workshops
  • Adapting all steps of our innovation process to a virtual environment
  • Supporting a culture of innovation remotely

Here are a few key insights from our experience to help you perpetuate innovation during the pandemic and future downturns and disruptions:

  1. In a crisis or major change, designate some resources from both corporate and within the business to look at immediate or near-term issues. Willis Towers Watson employed a SWAT team-like approach at a corporate level and within our businesses to figure out the immediate changes — to both internal processes and external solutions — that are needed as a result of the pandemic. While business teams quickly got to work to determine the changes required to provide solutions clients would need right away and to ensure support was uninterrupted, colleagues at the corporate level focused on identifying efficiencies, reinforcing business resilience and scenario planning.
  2. Meanwhile, keep some resources focused on the future. Yes, the company needs to survive the upheaval. But most can’t (or shouldn’t) stop all long-term efforts. Despite the pressures of the pandemic, Willis Towers Watson made the decision to keep intact two of our programs which invest in incubating ideas for long-term growth.

    In addition, we continued our Innovation Masters workshops, albeit with a new virtual format, to build innovation skills and capabilities across the company and get colleagues in the habit of looking for growth opportunities. If we had put these efforts on hold, we would have lost valuable traction in pursuing game-changing new solutions and in preparing our colleagues to create solutions for the post-COVID-19 future.

  3. Maintain a balanced innovation portfolio. Think about your organization: Do you know how much investment is targeting one year, three years or five-plus years of growth? Organizations should strive for a balance of projects with different impacts, risks and time profiles, some of which will pay off in the near term and some of which have longer runways but higher potential.

    We take a portfolio approach when selecting which ideas to invest in for our long-term growth initiatives. We strive for a balance of ideas across what we call adjacent innovation (products that are similar to our existing solutions and thus are riskier and have shorter time to market) and breakthrough innovation (products that are risky with long runways but could be potential game changers). The latter category has a higher failure rate, naturally, but the successes are transformative.

By continuing the momentum around innovation throughout the pandemic, we now have several new products or services nearing launch and a steady pipeline of new ideas and concepts on their way to be tested.


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Senior Associate – Corporate Innovation
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