What happens when the new-normal becomes the old-normal?

Why We Need Different Innovation In Different Moments

Emma E Greenwood
Mar 1 · 3 min read

After the first 29 days of the pandemic, the cost of a flight from NYC to Miami was $29, and 29% of companies that sold bathrobes were sold out.

In 2020 we were the frogs thrown straight in the pot of boiling water — panic buying bathrobes and toilet paper — but unable to jump out, we've acclimated and we have to admit that there are elements of this “new normal” we like. While we are anxious for “the end” of the pandemic, there are changes to the way we work and live that we want to continue.

As companies think about how they can serve consumers during this moment of transition, they should consider the impact of two different types of innovation:

  1. Incremental Innovation
  2. Transformational Innovation

Incremental Innovation happens through small improvements to an existing product over time.

Look at the development of the Ford car. Major visible changes are only recognizable over long periods of time. Small adaptations or improvements are made to address consumer problems as they arise by modifying something that already exists.

Source: Automobile Reference Collection

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Incremental Innovation has been everywhere, from the thousands of slightly varied standing-desk designs, to the constant Zoom updates. Though the speed of these innovations have occurred rapidly, they are still just iterations on an existing idea: they improve the experience, they don't revolutionize it.

Transformational Innovation happens when you completely reimagine an existing system or methodology.

Let's consider the high jump. The rules of the sport are simple: get over the bar without touching it. For years, athletes had incrementally improved their technique for getting over the bar, but had always led the ascent feet first. It wasn't until the mid-1900s that Olympian Dick Fosbury transformed the sport by approaching the bar head first.

Source: Britannica Academic

This maneuver, known now as the Fosbury Flop, was so much more effective than any other technique, that a head-first approach quickly became (and still is) standard in the sport.

It's rare that a new, transformational approach is so quickly adopted — But major disruptions to daily life can be the catalysts for these overnight behavioral shifts. The microwave wouldn't be a standard appliance if home-life hadn't dramatically changed during WW2, empowering women to take control over the hours in their day by outsourcing dinner to a device.

To state the obvious, the pandemic is a major disruption — overnight the world was different. Companies stepped up to address the needs of the immediate moment with Incremental Innovations that made life inside not just bearable, but in some ways better than before Covid: our distribution chains, digital services, and online universes are finally delivering the on-demand world we always thought was possible.

We're at an interesting inflection point in the pandemic, able to see just enough light at the end of the tunnel to consider what we'll miss from life in our bubble when we return to the 'old normal,' and the companies that serve us should be thinking about this too.

What will be the Transformational Innovation that meets this transitional moment? Companies should consider what about pre-Covid life now feels ridiculous, and what about Covid living is pleasantly routine. The next Transformational Innovation is somewhere inside the balance of these two worlds.

I & CO

A collection of articles by the I & CO crew on the future of business