Discontinuity breeds opportunity: keys to successful transformation during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Rachael Brassey

Apr 26, 2021

As we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to see inspiring examples of ingenuity across all industries. While businesses have faced immeasurable challenge during this time, those that have embraced innovation have found opportunity.

As organisations adapt to meet evolving demands, the fundamentals of transformation still apply, but there are certain key factors in particular that are common across the success stories.

Technology is enabling the shift to greater personalisation

As technology has grown to give brands better insights into customer needs, customers have in turn learned to expect more personalised service. This not only benefits the customers, who get exactly what they’re looking for, but it benefits the brands who are using data to fulfil and exceed customer expectations.

The retailer Zara is a great example. While sales initially fell at the start of lockdown, Zara’s inventory management system identified a trend towards people buying more home-wear. By staying on top of customer sentiment and shopping habits through data analytics, they were able to quickly update their product range and inventory. As a result, Zara recorded 74 per cent growth in their online channel during the first half of 2020 and a €214 million net profit in the second quarter of the year.

For brands to compete in the post-COVID-19 market, they will need to invest in advanced data analytics, pay close attention to consumer trends and make use of tools to explore future business scenarios. Just as Zara used analytics to track consumer shopping habits, organisations need to observe behaviours and respond accordingly. Rather than wait for things to “get back to normal,” brands must continue to take proactive steps to adapt to changing conditions.

A greater sense of urgency demands agility and faster time to market

Organisations can no longer wait months or years to launch critical services. We found 72 per cent of business leaders agree that their organisation’s ability to respond quickly to change is the difference between success and failure. Speeding up time-to-value must be a priority, now more than ever.

Throughout lockdown, numerous organisations have been challenged to do more with less and get vital services to vulnerable populations. In the UK, more than one million people who were considered at high risk for severe illness were advised to stay at home for 12 weeks beginning in March 2020, making them reliant on outside services for basic needs like food and medicine. To manage this sudden demand, Hampshire County Council asked for our help to keep track of resident needs. We partnered with Amazon Web Services to develop an automated wellbeing call service within a week. It was faster and more cost effective than building a fully staffed call-centre from scratch, and allowed local authorities to triage requests.

This agile mindset and ingenious execution kept tens of thousands of people safe without sacrificing basic needs and comforts. Businesses must operate in much the same way, responding quickly to change and updating processes accordingly to deliver uninterrupted service and value.

Scaling during the pandemic: a people-first approach

Leaders need to put their people first. A team that is inspired and motivated will be more invested in the success of the organisation. To successfully scale during challenging times, particularly the pandemic, leaders must directly face and understand their teams’ challenges at a personal level and lead with humanity. They must also ensure that each member is aligned to the organisation’s purpose. Having a central mission to work toward keeps members engaged by showing them the impacts of their work.

Leaders should regularly ask themselves these core questions:

  • What is our purpose, and how does each person help us achieve that purpose?
  • How am I addressing the individual needs of my people? 
  • What can I do to inspire them around the vision we have for growth of our organisation?
  • How will growth impact the team? Will they have more flexibility around working times? Better access to infrastructure, opportunities, and colleagues?
  • How have I structured my teams around the organisation’s growth objectives? Who is keeping the engines running versus expanding into new fields of opportunity?

It is clear there is much still to do here and critical that organisations act on the learnings. Based on a study of 300 of the UK’s largest listed companies, business leaders’ claim that their most significant learning from the pandemic is “having the culture and capacity to adapt/pivot” and “putting people first”. One of the most significant findings was around the value of culture with many companies ‘stuck in the mud’ and unable to operate at pace due to their culture. Inspirational leadership and a strong culture for inclusion and flexibility and trusting people were deemed critical to success. Although these companies put culture as the number one learning from the pandemic, most people disagreed that employers are thinking of people more – just under half (48% )in the US feel that employers are thinking of people more, while only 36% in the UK feel that way.  Given the clear ‘organisational’ need and the mutually reinforcing link to performance and wellbeing, leaders have a real opportunity to transform building high levels of engagement and resilience.

Build for scale by embracing simplicity in organisational structures

If there’s one major takeaway from the pandemic, it’s that temporary setbacks can quickly become “the new normal.” While it’s important to remain flexible and adapt to change quickly, it’s equally important to act in such a way that you’ll be prepared for the long-haul. One way to do this is by simplifying organisational structures.

It may seem counterintuitive to cut down on specialisation and hierarchies to improve efficiency, but often it’s complicated organisational structures that limit a company’s ability to react to change. In fact, our research into organisational agility found that 60 per cent of organisations believed that too many layers of management were holding them back. Those with simpler structures were able to adapt to change more quickly because there’s less red tape to cut through.

Old-fashioned hierarchy is quickly becoming an outdated model; organisations with minimal hierarchy, decentralised decision-making and cross-functional teams focused on delivering value have been better able to respond to change throughout the pandemic. For example, one global bank we helped with an agile transformation used the transition to remote working as a spur to work in flatter, more collegiate structures. Previously closed-door meetings have been opened to more people virtually, allowing for a greater diversity of thought and ideas.

Applying the lessons of early pandemic successes to transformation

The companies that have successfully responded to the COVID-19 pandemic have a distinct competitive advantage in the market. They have proven they have the agility, capability and confidence to respond to – and initiate – change quickly and adapt effectively to the new demands and opportunities they face. They are likely to be more resilient in the future through having a clear purpose, led by leaders committed to achieving that purpose and an engaged and motivated workforce. These are not only key attributes to achieving successful transformation, but arguably the key attributes of successful enterprises of the future.


About the authors

Rachael Brassey PA people and change expert

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