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9 ideas for leadership teams in a brave new world

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 and leaders will continue to 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 robust and agile enough to withstand the increased volume, variety and velocity of external forces
  • Create better businesses with positive environmental impact
  • And make bigger contributions to the economy and society as a whole

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

So, where do you start?

Review performance but focus on your winners

Companies that thrive in the brave new world will start with a thorough and unbiased review of their performance.

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 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 that 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 humanity’s best chance of controlling the high rate of transmission, and in turn, reducing the impact of Coronavirus on economies. But vaccinations are not the ultimate panacea, and it’s important to factor this into your planning.

The first round of vaccinations is focused on health service and key workers, and highly vulnerable people. For the rest of us, roll out will take some time.

It’s also worth noting that vaccinations still may not be widely adopted by the general public. We live in an ‘anti-science’ culture, and anti-vaccination scepticism remains high, exacerbated by significantly accelerated development and trial times.

When we first published this article we were predicting local lockdowns to control any second wave of Covid-19 infections, but as of February 2021 we find ourselves in full national lockdown. In a persistently unpredictable time like this, all scenarios need to be worked through and outcomes 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 to pre-September 11th levels quite quickly.

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 just wait and see.

Accelerate digital transformation

Many of the top-performing companies in 2020 were those supporting digital transformation; Zoom, Microsoft, Salesforce, and Adobe among many more.

Digital transformation programmes have long been the changes that never quite get 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 unprecedented acceleration of digital transformation, changing the way we live, work and communicate. We are on the cusp of Industry 4.0, so digital transformation programmes should focus on delivering this opportunity to change ways of working, not simply layering a digital tool over an existing practice – inefficiencies don’t go away just because you make them ‘digital’.

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 that 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.

More work is completed from home, and this will remain the case as many companies declare they’re planning to minimise 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 that minimise the impact on productivity. To help with this the UK government have produced a useful guide.

As leaders, our role is to create positive and collaborative environments that allow people to deliver high performance and build fulfilling careers so make sure you hink about how your future plans filter down to the people that will help you achieve them.

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 that don’t easily withstand 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 everyone involved is 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, perpetuating 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.

9 things to ask yourself today

  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. Can you identify data and analytics improvements in your business in order to make quick wins?
  5. Do you regularly review trusted sources of external data and intelligence to inform decision making and adjustments to strategy?
  6. Who is getting it right and what can you learn from them?
  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)?

We work with leaders like you to ensure that business structures and finances support visions for the future. Get in touch today and see if we can help you create a strategy for success.

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