Interview with Prof. Dr. Frank Piller

What challenges do innovation and innovators face in times of crisis?

Well, obviously, this now is a time of constraint resources, and innovation sometimes is costly. Actually, I believe that such a crisis is a huge facilitator of innovation!

Sadly, our research shows that the biggest innovation challenge of companies is “normality”.  Many companies are amazingly reluctant to innovate beyond their core and beyond continuous improvement when business is good and all things are as they always used to be.

Given that the payoffs for a company coming up with a solution to an urgent need (for example, a vaccine against COVID-19) can potentially be very high, companies should feel more comfortable to purse also riskier and potentially unconventional scientific approaches. Joshua Gans, a colleague from the University of Toronto, hence concludes that there is a broad need for a portfolio approach to innovation — spreading our options widely — to better understand which paths might prove to be feasible.

Personally, I just found it amazing to observe what happened during the past four weeks, how some very traditional companies over nights could revamp their businesses and totally move to new markets. I hope that we can keep this pace in the future!

"A lot of things I considered avant-garde in a few pioneering companies suddenly became standard."

How can innovation work without face-to-face exchange and creative workshops?

A lot of innovation is digital already, and working in global teams and using simulation instead of physical prototypes is an established practice since long. Also customer research or concept testing can be done perfectly online. Hence, here I would say the COVID-19 crisis actually helped to innovate innovation – I mean to use more digital tools and collaboration than in the past.

I am researching since years how digital tools, internet platforms, AI&ML, or virtual customer co-creation can facilitate the innovation process, and it was fascinating to see how the use of these tools exploded in the past month. A lot of things I considered avant-garde in a few pioneering companies suddenly became standard.

However, I agree, in the end I also hope that we can have again face-to-face meetings and physical innovation workshops – they are just big fun (i.e. motivation) and some issues can be solved indeed much better in close proximity. Also, we failed yet to replicate the informal “watercooler talk” – a huge source of innovation – in the virtual world.

How did innovation priorities shift in the COVID-19 crisis? Could we, for example, see new or different types and patterns?

THE core pattern of innovation as a response to the COVID-19 crisis has been openness and open innovation. Often, research & development are seen as secretive activities behind closed doors – especially in the medtech sector. But suddenly, we had 80+ open source (open hardware) ventilator projects, including some of the big players (just look at https://makezine.com/2020/04/13/ranking-open-source-ventilators/). Also in many other fields, like pharmaceutical development, openness and collaboration became the default!

Another interesting field is business model innovation. Here, a project from our institute (RWTH TIM) started. When all the small shops and businesses had to close, a group of our research associates started to think, are there special business model patterns which can help a business in such a situation to keep in business (“flatten the curve – not your business” was the project theme)?

Out of this, a dedicated collection of special patterns for business models in a crisis arrived (again using open innovation and crowdsourcing for its realization). I believe this will become a valuable tool also in post-Corona times – to increase the business model resilience of an organization!

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Prof. Dr. Frank Piller im Portrait

Prof. Dr. Frank Piller
Head of Chair
Institute for
Technology and
Innovation Management
(TIM)