8 Lessons in Innovation from 2020

For innovators and entrepreneurs across the world, 2020 has been a year unlike any other. The global economy came to a halt. Overnight, remote working and virtual businesses became the new normal. But even in this crisis, there were outstanding examples of business innovation. Companies pivoted amidst the most serious disruption of the last century and reported growth. Even as the World Trade Organization’s May 2019 forecast said global GDP would shrink between 13 and 32 percent in 2020, an outlier like Zoom rode on the boom in remote working technology to add $37 billion in market capitalisation, making it among the 20 most valuable U.S. technology companies. Zoom’s market cap today outperforms IBM.  

Such stories of growth amidst the contraction of the global economy are more than just examples of good luck. These are in fact case studies in business innovation. Let us look at eight lessons in innovation from the business successes that emerged during the pandemic.

Start your innovation journey before the next crisis

The most successful innovators and entrepreneurs of 2020 did not very often begin their journey during the pandemic. They had in fact started on this path much earlier. Take the case of Zoom, which in fact had its first release in 2012. Its first conferences hosted just 15 participants. But now eight years later, when the global pandemic made remote working the new normal, Zoom was an idea whose time had come. It proved to be the “right” company with the “right” idea at the “right” time. But it took eight years to get there. Yet today, Zoom has over 300 million participants in daily meetings.  

Build businesses that pivot

In 2019, Airbnb was the world’s most successful travel rental online marketplace and was all set for its IPO in 2020. But then the pandemic struck, and its entire business model underwent an overhaul, with travel being one of the hardest hit industries. But Airbnb pivoted rapidly to pioneer online travel experiences, which would soon be replicated across the industry. It not only survived, but also proceeded with its stock market debut in 2020, surging past $100 billion to become the biggest U.S. IPO of the year. Its continued success lay in its legendary agility and the ability to pivot in the face of disruption. Nearer home, we saw the same nimbleness in action when Telangana startup Marut Drones rose to the challenges created by the pandemic. Founded by a team of IIT Guwahati alumni, and incubated at T-Hub, the startup had been applying drone technology to the problems of sustainable agriculture and reforestation. But it pivoted to apply drone technology to solving the challenges of COVID-19 successfully, aiding the Telangana government’s drive to sanitise 11 districts.

Empower your people

Corporate innovators such as Google have always put employee innovation at the heart of their organisation’s culture. At Google, employees have traditionally devoted at least 20 percent of their time to side projects, resulting in big ideas like Gmail and Google Maps, just to name a few. But the pandemic put innovation in sharp focus across industries, like never before. Companies like Microsoft and Deloitte now announced tools, which would help employees innovate better. Acknowledging this shift, Google’s Chief Innovation Evangelist Dr Frederik G. Pferdt said, “Everyone wanted to innovate before the pandemic, but now everyone needs to innovate.” Clearly, innovation was no longer a matter of choice for organisations.    

Communicate. Collaborate. Co-operate.


More than at any time in the past, the pandemic also showed us the importance of communication. Businesses innovated in how leaders spoke to their stakeholders more than ever before. They communicated more often and authentically. For the first time, the needle also shifted from competition to business collaboration. Even among competitors! Nowhere was this more visible than in the Burger King advertisement, which encouraged customers to buy from its traditional rival McDonald’s. “Getting a Whopper is always best, ordering a Big Mac is also not such a bad thing,” signed off the advertisement. 

Understand the power of data

As governments around the world tracked the number of COVID-19 positive cases, deaths, and recoveries around the world, individual and community data proved to be a precious commodity. Predictive analytics showed itself to be crucial in our fight against COVID. We saw its impact first-hand, when predictive healthcare startup cogni.Care, incubated at T-Hub, combined Deep AI with patient data to build a complete picture of users’ health. As more companies acknowledged the power of data, ANZ’s State of BI & Analytics Report 2020 now revealed 67% of companies surveyed found BI and analytics to be crucial to business operations, as compared to before the pandemic.

Invest wisely

Survival was the most important goal for businesses in the pandemic. A survey by U.S. technology company Apptio showed 66 per cent of the organisations it surveyed were focused on cost optimisation. This gave these businesses an opportunity to assess essential and non-essential expenses and deprioritise areas like travel and office facilities. But, on the other hand, call centres in China invested heavily in IT equipment to enable employees to work from home securely. While such companies have now reverted to normal operations, these businesses expect at least up to 40 percent of their staff to continue to work from home as it is proving to be more efficient. In this manner, in more ways than one, the pandemic made it necessary for innovators and entrepreneurs to continuously do more with less.

Plan meticulously. Expect change.

The pandemic once again showed the need the need for business continuity planning, change management and risk mitigation. Across the world, when the lockdown started, business continuity plans were put to test. But even here, the limits to such measures were exposed, as all plans had to be tweaked for a complete global shutdown, which the world had never witnessed before.

Shape the future. Don’t follow it.

Across industries, the big successes have been from innovators and entrepreneurs who anticipated the impact of their business ideas before anybody else did. Be it Amazon in retail, Netflix as a content platform, or Coursera for online education. None of these corporate innovators have been shaped by their segments or the current crisis. They have in fact defined their industries and thrived amidst change. 

[1] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/05/globalisation-covid19-gdp-drop-2008-financial-crisis

[2] https://www.distilnfo.com/itadvisory/2020/09/04/zoom-video-communications-shares-surge-by-41-adding-37-billion-in-market-cap/

[3] https://www.moneycontrol.com/news/world/airbnb-valuation-surges-past-100-billion-in-biggest-us-ipo-of-2020-6214821.html