COVID-19 has highlighted the importance of adaptability: it's time to build to evolve

The COVID-19 pandemic, environmental concerns and social unrest have upended the established order. Across all industries, organisations are having to adapt faster than ever. Over the last year, even large incumbent organisations have had to find ways to adapt to the world’s largest agile working experiment, proving you can teach old dogs new tricks.

Organisations must now be able to adapt their operations and customer offerings at unprecedented pace – but all too often, legacy systems, processes and methodologies hamper them. The question is, how can they set themselves up to respond better and faster – to become more adaptable and thrive in the face of constant change?

In our experience, there are three key actions to making this rapid evolution possible: flexible processes, adaptive planning and review cycles, and a learning culture.

1.     Design flexible processes that can adapt to meet business needs

Rigid technical and procedural barriers can paralyse an organisation. To establish processes that can evolve to meet business needs, leaders can:

  • conduct value-stream mapping exercises
    We’ve seen long-established organisations use value-steam mapping to identify where technological friction is delaying innovation, and where the biggest opportunities for streamlining are (for example, where robotic process automation can enable teams to refocus on the tasks that benefit most from human qualities).
  • empower teams to change processes
    Make every team member able to challenge existing processes and offer improvements, so teams can reap the benefits of ingenious ideas they would otherwise lose in ‘the way we do things here.’

When lockdown began, TSB needed to move their services completely online. Many were built around legacy processes, which required physical branches. Driven by necessity, TSB moved quickly, building new operating processes from the ground up to ensure they could serve their customers while continually adapting to the changing needs of their staff. As their operations adapted, so too did their supporting systems. Using a mix of cloud capabilities and third-party tools, problems were ‘fixed in flight.’ At the same time, they reduced approvals processes that would normally take 18 months to a matter of weeks. Adapting their customer facing systems as they went, TSB succeeded in ensuring their operations remained resilient throughout, and without customers facing costly or embarrassing performance issues.

The result was that TSB were able to transition their customer services online at a pace normally thought impossible. TSB’s adaptability in the face of change gave them the vital edge in responding to the challenges that COVID-19 presented.

2.     Make decisions faster with adaptive planning and review cycles

Organisations with shorter, detailed planning horizons can iteratively reprioritise initiatives according to the needs of the moment. As business priorities change, and feedback from early iterations arrives, leaders must be open to revising priorities and designs accordingly. Agile product ownership and backlog management techniques can help here, particularly when you need to make potentially emotive decisions impartially.

To promote the ability to adapt, organisations can:

  • adopt shorter planning and review cycles at all levels
    Short planning horizons with regular review and learning windows let you pivot in response to changes. But it’s crucial to embrace such short horizons across the organisation – synchronising everyone to a common cadence and using dynamic budgeting rather than rigid annual cycles will ensure everyone constantly reviews, reprioritises and adapts to change. This will enable you to commit to doing the most important thing now, rather than following a mechanistic flow to a fixed endpoint.
  • organise around value streams
    Having mapped the end-to-end value-streams through which your organisation delivers value to the customer, the next step is to build cross-functional teams around them. Traditional hierarchies silo teams into parts of the process, making it difficult to adapt to changing needs due to lengthy handovers. A team of cross-functional specialists, empowered to act across the entire customer life-cycle, has the tools to quickly reprioritise around what the customer needs, making better decisions to evolve continuously.

Public health teams rely on their ability to share and analyse information quickly and effectively. So, just as COVID-19 was making headlines, we worked with a national public health organisation to create a simple, user-centric insights platform. As the crisis escalated, so too did the programme requirements. Using adaptive planning and review cycles, we quickly evolved with the changing situation.

In only six months, we took the platform from concept to a live, scalable product that now plays a vital role in the pandemic response. It’s the ‘front door’ to over 50 business and analytical products, helping critical services support the government and senior healthcare professionals in understanding and managing COVID-19.

3.     Enable adaptation through a continuous learning culture

Processes that allow for evolution are one thing. You also need your people to be able to adapt to new challenges and exploit new opportunities. It’s only when people are willing to adapt and work together in new ways, and learn the skills needed to achieve this, that they’ll be able to carry the organisation towards shared success.

To ensure teams have the knowledge and ability to quickly adapt to change, leaders can:

  • promote a culture of continuous learning and development
    Encouraging blame-free sharing of lessons (especially following mistakes), improving access to learning resources and incentivising mentoring schemes can all help to emphasise the value of learning. This ensures a skilled workforce with the desire and resources to quickly pick up new knowledge to support changes.
  • embed cultural openness and enthusiasm for change
    Giving teams the freedom to self-organise around the needs of the moment enables them to adapt to new challenges. At the same time, including teams in decision making gives those who will be responsible for implementing change a voice in its design, and ensures you don’t overlook key planning factors.

When COVID-19 forced Verizon to close its bricks-and-mortar stores, they wasted no time in looking for new ways to reskill their workforce to support their new operations. Analysing their teams’ skillsets to understand who could best contribute to what, Verizon matched store staff to remote roles, such as customer service and telesales. The company then ran personalised skill gap analysis to understand what each person needed before offering tailored training and support. And continuous monitoring of performance confirmed the effectiveness of training and enabled follow-on support where necessary.

The results are striking. With over 20,000 workers retrained and creating value in new roles, Verizon saw a 19 per cent year-on-year growth in Earnings Per Share during the second quarter of 2020, compared to an eight per cent decline in the telecommunications market in the Americas.

Only the most adaptable will thrive in the constantly changing markets of tomorrow

The coronavirus pandemic brought unpredictable challenges to businesses in every sector – yet people have responded with ingenuity and found new ways to thrive. Rapid change of the sort we’ve seen will only continue, and the ability to evolve in the face of such changes will be integral to the success of businesses.

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