Walk around any town or city this autumn and you will find a range of shuttered businesses next door to others which have continued to operate during the pandemic. Some have responded rapidly with agility and creativity throughout 2020, enabling them to keep going and even excel at what they do. But what does it actually mean to be creative in these challenging times? And how do some businesses succeed while others fail?
The truth is we have all been living in a “VUCA” world for some time – a world filled with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. The ever-changing operating requirements – environmental regulations, new technologies, Brexit uncertainty, for example – already imposed challenges for businesses and now, with coronavirus, dramatic shifts in consumer behaviour have put considerable strain on companies, and will continue to do so post-pandemic.
Right now, coming up with business ideas to navigate the challenges and ensure a business survives, piles on the pressure. The creative response can come in many forms, from developing a novel product or service to an alteration in a process or even ripping up a whole business model.
In Scotland, for example, a family-owned business called Dunn’s Food and Drink, which has spent 145 years trading directly with the hospitality sector, faced losing 90% of its business almost overnight, but was ineligible for government support.
It quickly transformed its traditional business model and started selling to the public. To set up a creative response to the coronavirus challenges, Dunn’s developed apps for drivers to help with logistics and facilitate customer orders. A response that would usually have taken months to develop, happened within three weeks.
The company also responded rapidly in reducing its industrial-sized packs – bulk orders of rice, for example, were normally shipped in 25kg sacks. Its creativity did not stop there. Expertise in drinks dispensing was used to develop hand sanitising stations with space for clients’ own branding to support their reopening.
The question is, will the company go back to its traditional business model now that these new processes are in place? Having invested in new technology and infrastructure, it seems unlikely it would give up this new business stream, as Dunn’s needs to maintain this resilience to respond to any further challenges ahead.
Reacting and responding
To be creative, businesses need to have an open mind and make connections, as well as imagine and explore new solutions to problems that simply did not exist before. And crucially, they need to learn rapidly from mistakes. It’s not just about coming up with creative ideas, but putting them into action and responding to the shifting priorities as new regulations are enforced throughout the pandemic.
An independent children’s shoe shop in the West of Scotland called Susie and Sam’s remained in business during lockdown, as larger international chains like Clarks withdrew their children’s measuring service. Susie and Sam’s supported customers online and by phone to measure and fit children’s feet, with helpful advice.
Of more than 300 pairs of shoes purchased during lockdown, only ten pairs were returned. Later, as lockdown was easing, the owner opened up her garden to do shoe fittings outside. Children were kept entertained by her Welsh Mountain pony Ruben, who featured in the company’s regular, open and honest Facebook communication about what was happening business-wise.
During lockdown there was little time to test new creative ideas, and businesses had to just run with them. Having the creative ability and motivation to respond and make changes has been crucial to the survival of many companies.
Businesses need to know the new rules as they come into play, understand their customers’ appetite for change and acquire or develop the skills to implement a creative response. New regulations in social distancing and sanitising have hit the hospitality industry hard. An industry-commissioned survey of 36,000 consumers concluded that social distancing remained the biggest concern for people returning to pubs and restaurants.
The Chester Hotel in Aberdeenshire came up with a fun, safe and creative response – setting up transparent igloos to allow diners to eat outside while observing social distancing.
Permanent closures have been highest in the restaurant industry with some well-loved names going to the wall, such as Glasgow’s oldest Indian restaurant, the Koh-I-Noor. But others have creatively captured new opportunities, like the popular small chain of restaurants called Six by Nico, which before the pandemic offered themed tasting menus, and had just expanded into England and Northern Ireland. The restaurant adapted swiftly during lockdown to provide an at-home dining kit experience, which often sold out within minutes of each Friday menu release.
With consumers now policing businesses that flout the regulations – either formally or by word of mouth online – the pressure on businesses to innovate has increased. The next phase of creative thinking may be needed sooner than we think, as businesses and consumers face up to the prospect of further restrictions and government intervention.
Creativity will help businesses survive these pressures and secure their place in this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. And their experiences can help others innovate and avoid any painful and expensive mistakes. These creative successes will be studied and taught on business courses, examining how their adaptability led to company survival and resilience, leading the way not just through this ongoing crisis, but through any turbulent times in the future.
Julie C. Thomson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.