There's no denying that COVID-19 has forced the hand of many individuals and organizations to accelerate their digital transformation.

Suddenly we were working from home, teaching and learning remotely, using tools we had either never used or only used fleetingly, and finding new ways to stay connected and productive.

Forward-thinking organizations have seized this as an opportunity to rethink every aspect of their business. How they engage with customers, how to better enable their teams, and how to become leaner when the entire operation may have been turned upside down. One thing is for sure, we've seen a surge of innovation from organizations determined to thrive through the pandemic and beyond.

Now that we've had some time to get used to new ways of doing things, and come to the realization that some things will never go back to the way they were, it's time to prepare for what's next. These four principles of innovation can help us do it.

1. Prepare to support hybrid workforces

Remote working used to be considered a perk but that's not the case for the future. While many organizations have had to make it work for everyone, moving forward, a hybrid model will more likely become the norm.

We will see a mixture of fully remote workers, some who work in the office because they prefer it or because the nature of their job requires it, and others who are in the office some days and at home for the rest. To make hybrid work successful, we need to adequately support it.

Layer onto that challenge the fact that the nature of work, not just the location, is evolving. We don't work in the siloed, linear way that we used to. Organizational structure has flattened, people wear multiple hats, and they work in cross-functional teams. It's all about collaboration and the quality interactions people have with each other.

Peter Skillman illustrated the importance of these interactions―the kind where people ideate and iterate together to get things done―in his marshmallow design experiment. We must level the playing field for everyone with unified collaboration (UC), which includes virtual white boards, real-time audio and videoconferencing, and enhanced call control capabilities.

2. Don't just migrate to the cloud―master it

Companies that leverage the cloud used to be considered innovators, but today the cloud has become a business requirement. It's necessary to provide the flexibility and security that organizations need to support remote work, to become leaner, and to improve operational efficiency.

While the need to move to the cloud is clear, it doesn't have to be a traumatic experience. Organizations can undertake the change at their own pace, and on their own terms. Leveraging existing infrastructure investments during the transition may be the best way forward for your organization, especially during turbulent times.

Hybrid cloud models allow organizations to gain the benefits of scale, while maintaining the customizations they enjoy with on-prem environments. Keeping the familiarity with on-prem applications and processes can reduce disruption, make change easier, and reduce training costs which can go a long way towards realizing value quickly.

3. Realize promise of AI faster through embedded-AI solutions

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), once only feasible for the largest organizations, are now available to virtually any company through the host of embedded applications with AI baked in.

Your company can start augmenting decision-making and improving efficiency with these solutions that provide out-of-the-box implementation and eliminate the need for expensive data science resources or teams of analysts.

The value of these solutions is clear: putting more power into the hands of more people, from the field to the back office, to drive business impact.

4. Do what your competitors are not

When things are in flux, our natural tendency is caution. It's evident in the organizations that are holding back from new investment due to uncertainty.

But when others are holding back, isn't there a good opportunity for you to move forward? Throughout history there are plenty of examples of organizations that were able to leap-frog over competitors by doing what others were not.

In most cases, that means continuing to invest in advertising, product development, and digital transformation when your competitors are pulling back on spending.

Resilience is built on agility

It's a brave new world out there and the companies that will thrive are the ones that are agile and take on the challenges of getting back to business, possibly in a whole new way.

Consider agility the new currency for businesses of all shapes and sizes. We've seen the proof of this as companies that we thought were too big to fail did so, and others that were too small to make an impact created shock waves that disrupted established markets.

The message here is that now is not the time to be stagnant or to keep the status quo. COVID-19 has presented us with the prospect of enormous change and unprecedented opportunities as we move from being reactive to planning for the future.

With change comes the chance to choose your response. Will you choose to return to business or rethink the business? The choice is yours.

Andrew Au

When companies like Microsoft, FedEx, and 3M want to accelerate their digital transformation journey, they call Andrew Au. Referred to by Forbes as a "millennial expert", Andrew Au is a modern business leader who helps global blue-chip brands respond to the new culture and nature of work. Through his innovative work, he was the youngest person to be inducted into the Entrepreneurs Organization at the age of 22. Andrew is among the few Canadians to be named to Forbes' 30 Under 30 list and has received over 35 domestic and international awards for business innovation and thought leadership.

He is co-founder of INTERCEPT, a strategic management consultancy based in Toronto and Boston. He is also the President of SCOPIUM AI, a healthcare startup developing a patented cognitive platform focused on improving patient care and reducing medical costs using AI.

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