How to Rapidly Pivot and Properly Steer Innovation in a Crisis and Post-Crisis Environment

To help us better understand how innovation benefits organizations, we speak with two pillars of research and consulting in Canada, Charlie Wilton, cofounder of Sklar Wilton & Associates, and Michel Berne, founding partner at Ad Hoc Research, and also with a few clients for whom innovation is part of the organizational DNA.

Charlie Wilton, co-founder of Sklar Wilton & Associates and Michel Berne, founding partner, Ad Hoc research

BB: How important is innovation these days?

These days, we cannot talk about innovation without talking about the context of COVID and post-COVID. Organizations have no choice but to innovate at this time, more than ever. We are in a changing context. You can’t have the same service offer, same positioning, same customer experience and same communications as before and pretend nothing happened. For some organizations, the impact  may be minor, but for others it will certainly be major.


If we think about innovation, we have to consider it in a context with COVID and anticipate it for post-COVID as well.  Then consider, what will consumers’ mindset, their behaviour, their lifestyle, be like? We already have an idea of what it is now, but the big question is, what will be durable, permanent, and what is temporary? My hypothesis is that the things that will be more permanent are those that will bring tangible benefits to the consumer. That is to say: am I saving time, am I earning money?

This change brings opportunity as well as challenge. In either case, there is room for innovation. Out of necessity, you need to innovate. If you’re a retailer, you’re innovating now because of the change that has been thrust upon you, and if you don’t respond appropriately, your business will suffer. A good example is innovation in the grocery sector, where health and safety has become an issue. But then there are people innovating out of opportunity. There is a lot of entrepreneurial activity happening. I’m sure you see that this has sparked a lot of small local and own-baked businesses. People on the web are designing and selling masks. The toy industry is responding because people are staying at home.

BB: In your opinion, does this balance between innovation and repositioning, or better internal and external communication, put additional pressure on innovation?

If only your discourse changes but your service remains unchanged, consumers will see through it and say it’s just blah, blah, blah. I think we are in a context where repositioning, ideally, must be accompanied by real adaptations, real changes, real adjustments in the delivery because circumstances dictate it. We are not just changing a speech. You have to change things for real.

If you want to build a strong brand, I believe it takes innovation. Innovation is a fundamental element for a strong brand. There is no strong brand without innovation equity. It’s precious.


Both have their place, and I think if you’re looking at either one, you’re really looking at opportunity. If it’s a repositioning, initially it means that you feel that your brand has the opportunity to stretch to a new area and capitalize on that opportunity.

And the reason many brands fail – you hear the stats that 70-80% of innovations fail– is not that the idea itself is not a good idea, but that the business plans to support those innovations are never robust enough to sustain them. It’s like planting a little seedling and then failing to water it, care for it and nurture it, and then the poor thing dies. Sometimes it’s better to put that seedling under the wing of a brand that has the economic horsepower to sustain it. Coca-Cola recently launched a line of fruit flavours under the Coca-Cola brand. I think that was smart, because their equity in that space was strong enough and they can divert some of the funding of the master brand to support such innovations, as opposed to starting from scratch with a brand-new lineup.

Personally, I’m also a big believer of spend to strength. If you have built a brand, your first priority is to ensure the health and well-being of what you have, unless it’s damaged or otherwise tarnished. And there are many brands today, especially in the retail industry, that are struggling and will probably not make it through. They were probably weak going into this. In that case, no amount of added investment will suffice without a change in their fundamental proposition, which you could argue was flawed to begin with. So, it’s not a matter of advertising your way out of this, but it’s really looking at consumer needs and making sure you’ve got a proposition that’s well-aligned with the changing environment and consumer needs and that you can add distinctive value for the consumer. If you are not able, someone else may be in a better position to do that, and it leads to brands failing because of somebody else doing a better job in fulfilling those needs.

If you have your gaze set on the future and are on the lookout for opportunity, you need to assess whether your brand has the capability and equity to stretch into new opportunities. If not, you should perhaps consider building a brand from scratch, and in some cases I think you’d be better off.


BB: Every industry is affected differently, be it the technology, manufacturing or service industry. What would be your analysis of the situation as far as the impacts on these three industries?

I think they are fundamentally different industries. A consumer packaged goods company is appealing to basic human needs, whether with cleaning products or food. These are necessities of life. For some of them, we’ve encouraged our clients to look at this as an opportunity to continue to invest and innovate rather than to slow down their activity.

On a technology front, I think the pace of things has been evolving and will continue to evolve. I do think that technology will play a larger role in the delivery of services, whether it’s healthcare or financial advisory services. In the world of better, fast and cheaper, technology is forcing professional service firms to look at their offerings.

Of course, from one industry to another, the impacts are completely different, and this is true even within manufacturing, which encompasses several realities. So right now, everyone has to think about their customer experience, their product. I would break this down into three phases: first, a phase of listening; then, adaptation; and finally, reimagining. These three phases must be performed sequentially, but they can overlap.

I would answer the question by asking myself the following question: “What makes a company innovative?” I find it interesting to separate industries, but for me, everything starts with listening to the market and the consumer. There are two types of innovation sources, as we learned in our marketing classes: First, innovation that comes from researchers and technology. Then, innovation that comes from the market.

An organization must constantly dig deep to find unmet needs or pain points… To me, unmet needs and pain points are fertile ground for innovation. Once you understand that, you can then direct your R&D teams to consumers. For example, Netflix is a consumer model that solves all the problems we once had with video clubs.

BB: Our favorite topic: what would you say is the best way to test these new ideas?

These ideas are at different stages. Some are at a more embryonic stage. Others, more developed, are closer to what we could call concepts. The more we are in the early stages, where ideas still need to be articulated, the more we have creative approaches, like co-creation, where we dig deep into the fundamental needs. Each step aims to enrich the idea, improve it. We’re in agile mode, meaning we have an embryo of an idea and we’re exploring it.

The further we go into the development, the more we measure and quantify, until this idea that is taking shape and is now a concept has takers in the market and really meets a need. In between those two stages, multiple check-ins with consumers are required.

For me, the best way to test is to do it more and more quickly, while staying agile; making clear and understanding the distinction between – and this is often a fundamental problem – two things: the foundational idea and the execution of that idea. Often, good ideas are put aside because they were poorly executed in their presentation to the consumer, even though they may have been excellent. That is a great risk. Based on consumer feedback, you always need to understand if it’s the idea or the presentation that is being rejected. This is critical.


When we advise our clients on their innovation pipeline and the testing methodologies, it really depends on the scope of the innovation that you’re looking at. There is no right or wrong, it just depends on the risk profile of your innovation. If you fail and you’ve built a factory and hired thousands of people to produce a product that nobody wants, that’s a big risk. You’re better off working through a more formal process of checking the idea, doing a home-use test of the prototype, optimizing it and getting it right before you make major investments. Whereas if it’s a line extension and you already have the equipment and the people, and all you’re writing off is the packaging at the end of a bad experiment, you might counsel your clients to do very limited testing, trying it out and piloting it, or trying it on one account, as opposed to doing a lot of rigorous testing

BB: Do you believe that the business models of companies delivering professional services need to evolve?

I think advisory services need to be not only insightful, but also provide actionable advice.

On a long-term basis, we’re seeing our business evolve more toward strategic counsel than the actual practice of conducting surveys, whether qualitative or quantitative. The true added value we deliver lies in the the advice we provide on navigating the landscape, organizing your company and seizing these opportunities.

One thing I see is that all professional services industries have been affected by the “do it yourself” trends. More and more, clients are in-housing activities that they usually would have outsourced. I think we’re increasingly going to see DIT (“do it together”) trends. Companies, at the moment, are lacking resources and expertise. More and more, they’re going to want sustainable relationships with suppliers of professional services. Relationships where they don’t need to re-explain who they are every time, and suppliers with whom they’re going to work hand in hand.

Three clients tell us about innovation in the context of Covid-19

Caprion Biosciences Inc.

Founded in Montréal and present in North America, Europe, Australia and China, Caprion Biosciences is a world leader in the fields of immune monitoring and biomarker development.

“From a technological standpoint, we very quickly implemented a new type of service for viral testing in order to support government efforts as well as those of private companies wanting to ensure continuity of their activities. We’ve also started to expand our service offer to include assays required for vaccine research, namely with respect to vaccines for COVID-19.

Since we had just completed our strategic planning as well as our brand platform, we are convinced that these new services, which are the result of operational agility, support our positioning in the market.”

Benoit Houle, Ph.D. General Manager (Belgium) and VP Sales operations & Marketing


PRANA was founded in Montréal in 2005 by two adventurers who dreamed of changing the food system. Its mission is to promote a healthy lifestyle through healthy foods. B Corp certified and with a strong track record of social and environmental responsibility, PRANA offers a variety of 100% organic, GMO-free, vegan and gluten-free snacks and ingredients that are sold in all major grocery stores across Canada. PRANA is the #1 brand of organic snacks in Canada today.

“Although innovation is one of PRANA’s founding values – we disrupted the industry 15 years ago with an organic product and an innovative business vision in which success is also evaluated according to our impact on the community and the environment – the past few months have further confirmed that innovation is at the heart of our brand! Not only have we moved forward with many projects that were in the pipeline, we have also shown a lot of agility by launching several new products in our online store, in-housing the operations of our e-commerce which were outsourced for several years, and even building a new production line! All this while having to adapt to new ways of working. The crisis has certainly made us re-evaluate certain priorities, but it has also proven our resilience and the soundness of our strategic choices. This is possible thanks to our strong corporate culture and the dedication of the people behind the brand.”

Janick Parent, VP marketing

Premier Tech

For over 95 years, Premier Tech has been growing internationally thanks to the driving force of its 4,500 team members in 27 countries. Having grown steadily for more than a quarter of a century, Premier Tech today achieves annual sales of nearly $ 900 million. Innovation has been one of the approaches at the heart of the organization’s development strategy for three decades.

“The unexpected arrival of COVID-19 greatly disturbed the order of things in the organization. This crisis has had a significant impact on the innovation process, considering the economic uncertainty that took over in March. When Quebec and several other territories put their economy on hold, the company reduced the scope of its work and reviewed its project portfolio. The teams were reallocated to emphasize projects with short-term benefits. Paradoxically, this slowdown has created opportunities for more in-depth analyses that are difficult to undertake in so-called “normal” times. These reflections are allowing us to look at potential offers that bring value in the longer term. Looking back over 10 weeks, it appears that the impact of COVID has been greater on innovation in the medium term. Now, it’s time to closely observe the impacts of the various deconfinement measures in different territories where Premier Tech has a commercial presence and innovation approaches.”

Pierre Talbot, Biol., Ph.D.  Senior VP, Innovation

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