9 ideas for leadership teams in a brave new world

Leadership teams in every business have struggled the last few months with the challenge of COVID-19, and are now looking ahead to an uncertain future. How do you plan for so many extreme uncertainties?

It’s tempting to sit tight, and consolidate on successfully surviving the initial impact, draw breath, and pray for the “new normal” to bring a sense of predictability and certainty before making the next move.

This is a dangerous approach.  The illusion of a “new normal” leads to slowing innovation, shelving plans to review business models, and suffocating newly discovered agility and pace from responses to the first wave of the crisis.

The approach instead should be to prepare for a brave new world. Brave, because big decisions will need to be made with increased uncertainty; leaders will have to make difficult calls in a volatile environment.  A “new world”, because there is no touchstone to refer back to, and the old normal was a crisis in and of itself.

The imperative, as championed by the World Economic Forum’s “Global Reset” initiative, is to build back better.

Build businesses which are robust and agile enough to withstand the increased volume, variety and velocity of external forces. Create a better business with a positive environmental impact, and a  bigger contribution to the economy and society as a whole.

It’s a big ask to leadership teams still dusting themselves down from the initial shock of the first half of 2020, but it’s the most exciting time to be a leader, challenging every aspect of your skills and judgement.

So, where do you start?


Review performance but focus on your winners

Companies which thrive in the brave new world will start with a thorough and unbiased review of their performance in HY1. Learning from failure is important, but confidence is built by doubling down on the successes of your tactical crisis-response experiments. Surfacing the winning ideas, behaviours and processes is the first step, but sharing the stories of these wins around the business leads to confidence and momentum. Furthermore, weaving the successes of HY1 into a broader vision to transform the business will further consolidate positive change.

In order to develop a compelling vision, leaders need to climb out of their business and look for external factors which will guide their decisions.


Anticipate COVID-19 scenarios

The future for the UK and global economy is now closely linked to the trajectory of COVID-19. The magnitude of the impact on business will be defined primarily by the availability and efficacy of vaccination, testing, and treatment.

Vaccination presents humanities best chance of controlling the high rate of transmission, and in turn, reducing the impact of Coronavirus on economies.

Most estimates indicate a few vaccine options will be available in late 2020 / early 2021, with the UK government backing 3 different options.

But vaccinations are not the ultimate panacea, and it’s important to a factor this into your planning. The first round of vaccinations will be reserved for the health service and key workers, closely followed people who are highly vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19.

It’s also worth noting that vaccinations may not be widely adopted by the general public. We already live in an “anti-science” culture, and therefore “anti-vaccination” scepticism will be in abundance, exacerbated by the significantly accelerated trials for the drugs.

Testing remains challenging and time consuming, with delays of up to 1 week to receive test results. Without better testing, the ability to truly identify and control outbreaks will be limited.

The picture looks brighter for possible treatments of Coronavirus, meaning there will be less potential strain on the NHS, and certainly lowered risk of overwhelm. This in turn means a reduced likelihood of full national lockdown in the event of the feared second wave in the winter of 2020 / 21.

The most likely outcome for the near future is an increase in positive cases, with local lockdowns the norm to control outbreaks. This should be factored into policies and procedures, both for your people, and supply chains.


Consider elasticity of change

A key strategic skill to prepare for the brave new world will be the ability to separate the permanent changes from the elastic changes which bounce back once a crisis is averted.

Following the 2001 September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, air travel security procedures changed, and remain more or less unchanged to this day. However, seating arrangements, destinations, passenger numbers, flight routes, foreign holidays and business travel, all rebounded back quickly to pre-September 11th levels.

Separating the signal from the noise in your market, supply chains, and industry requires an outward looking approach, using a broad range of data and intelligence sources to predict how the brave new world will map out, and how your business should pivot to take advantage. You won’t get all the calls right, but you will be better off than having stood still to “wait and see”.


Accelerate digital transformation

Many of the top performing companies in 2020 are those supporting Digital Transformation; Zoom, Microsoft, Salesforce, and Adobe among many more.

Digital transformation programmes have long been the change that never quite gets prioritised or fully supported at board level, often stopping short at a redesigned website, or a new telephony system for head office. Many a business case has floundered on the rocks due to a lack of genuine will to change, opting for a slow and steady “if it ain’t broke, why fix it” attitude.

What the last few months have taught us, is that a tiny microbe has heralded an unprecedented acceleration of Digital Transformation, changing the way we live, work and communicate. We are on the cusp of Industry 4.0.

Digital transformation programmes should be focused on delivering the opportunity to change ways of working, not simply layering a digital tool over an existing practice. An inefficient process run digitally is still damaging to your business.

You don’t always have to “think big”. Simple changes to existing systems, upgrades, improved data and analytics all fit under the scope of a digital transformation, and often lead to more lasting change. Critically the scope for digital should be business wide and based on quick early wins to deliver benefits in the shape of cost-reduction, improved customer experience, and better working environments.


Prioritise your people as you launch your plan

Wide ranging digital transformation, streamlined processes and the current pandemic mean a lot of anxiety and pressure on your people.

As leaders, our role is to create positive and collaborative environments which allow our people to deliver high performance and build fulfilling careers.

Much has changed as a result of COVID-19, and a lot of the change will last for at least the next 18 months.

More work is completed from home, and this will remain the case. Many companies across a broad cross-section of industries have declared they will be “minimising their physical footprint”. Establishing ways to boost productivity and look after your people in a remote working capacity will be a priority.

For those job roles still requiring collaboration in a physical space such as warehousing and manufacturing, there remains a need to develop and sustain safe working practices, which minimise the impact on productivity. The UK government have produced a useful guide.


Develop simple flexible supply chains

The old normal was the era of globalisation, which saw an ever-tightening squeeze on supply chain cost. The paradox this delivered was “efficient fragile complexity”; complex multinational logistics, which cannot withstand the hits from global crises. Even companies like Apple and many auto OEM’s were hit by their dependency on sourcing from China.

Reconfiguring supply chains to be ultra-agile and responsive to a highly volatile world is a top priority. Diversifying the location, proximity, and method of supply needs careful planning and scenario-based scrutiny.

Start by mapping your entire supply chain and look upstream of your immediate suppliers. Try and tease out potential exposure to any risks. Ensure a deep understanding of your critical vulnerabilities and take immediate action to spread the risk. Even if existing contracts seem a barrier, look to renegotiate terms, drawing on suppliers need for your business to survive!

Once you’ve successfully diversified your supply chain, stress-test it to ensure suppliers and distribution partners are able to fulfil their promised responses. The results of these tests also help you shape your crisis response and business continuity plans.

For lasting change, contribute to the community

Perhaps one significant “game-changer” is the potential for an improved business community.

Levels of collaboration between businesses during the worst days of the Coronavirus crisis were catalysts for innovation in the creation of everything from masks and other PPE right up to new designs for ventilators and other critical care equipment.

The mutual support and rapid removal of barriers within industries towards a common purpose illustrated the power of networks to deliver change and societal benefit.

As we head into the brave new world, collaboration, sharing of best practice, and celebrating success should become key features of the UK business community.


Summary ideas for leadership teams:

  1. What has worked during the crisis and how can you build on those improvements?
  2. Has the crisis stifled innovation? Is the leadership team holding back ideas, and limiting bold vision, in a trade-off with survivability?
  3. Is there a bias in your automation and digital roadmap towards one area of the business? Does the roadmap extend from customer interactions, through operations, and suppliers?
  4. Identify data and analytics improvements in your business to identify quick wins in processes
  5. Build regular reviews of trusted sources of external data and intelligence to inform decision making and adjustments to strategy.
  6. Look for ideas from areas of the world which are getting it right. Vietnam for example are getting little coverage in the western media but have minimised disruption from COVID-19, with very few cases and minimal deaths.
  7. How will you regularly review the morale and wellbeing of your people, particularly as you introduce change into the business?
  8. Can you reskill or re-purpose people in your business as automation and digitisation increases?
  9. How can you “build back better” in the fundamental areas of Environmental, Social, Governance (ESG)?
Phil Hammett
Phil Hammett Marketing Director

My main mission is to raise the profile and awareness of MPA in all sectors of UK innovation, demonstrating how we support businesses through our services and talented people. With over 20 years in senior Technology and Marketing roles, I’ve been lucky to work in small businesses, challenger brands, and large global enterprise. I’m fascinated by our clients innovative work, and use our platform to spread their stories.