Old dogs are learning new tricks during the biggest ever agile working experiment

By Claudia Pellegrino, Stephen Hughes, Claire Ramsbottom

Jul 13, 2020

As we emerge from the coronavirus crisis into a new reality, organisations can learn from the agile practices behind the most successful responses to the pandemic and drive long-term success.

With the arrival of COVID-19, many organisations found ingenious ways to adapt. Things that were seemingly impossible rapidly became reality and the barriers to organisational agility vanished. Planning cycles went from annual to monthly. Decision-making became decentralised. Employees got more autonomy. Technology took centre stage. And every function clamoured to collaborate. These elements of agility are what made it possible for the American College of Chest Physicians and American Thoracic Society to launch a digital system that matches available doctors with hospitals in just two weeks. Less time than it might have previously taken to schedule a meeting with all necessary executives.

In short, old dogs with deeply embedded habits are learning new tricks – they’re becoming agile organisations.

As the world shifts to its new reality, organisations will face new challenges and their customers and employees will expect them to be able to pivot immediately to respond.

So, to achieve long-term success, organisations must embed the agile behaviours and approaches that have driven successful responses to COVID-19. They need to maintain the momentum and sense of purpose they’ve built up during the crisis by focussing their efforts on five dimensions of organisational agility:

1. Centre on your customer

Customer centricity puts people’s lives at the heart of decision-making.

Organisations that continued to thrive despite the global pandemic are the ones that embraced a true customer-led culture. They’ve been able to respond to the world under COVID-19, a world where customers have started behaving differently, where their habits and needs have changed. For instance, customers are accepting a lower level of service than before, as long as businesses communicate with them honestly. Many organisations quickly sensed this and pivoted to offer clear and honest messaging that sets new expectations.

Key to answering these shifts in customer wants and needs is really listening to their opinions. Health insurance company Humana, for example, is using artificial intelligence to help their customer service team analyse people’s tone during calls so they can offer better support, despite increased call volumes during the pandemic. Having this customer-centricity built into its operations has been key to their ability to navigate COVID-19.

Now more than ever, customers expect a seamless experience. To survive in the long-term, all organisations must embrace customer centricity as business-as-usual, not just as a crisis response. To do so, they should continuously re-prioritise products and services based on analyses of customer needs, which entails:

  • proactively seeking regular feedback from customers before and after launching products and services
  • going beyond getting opinions on their ideas, instead encouraging customers to co-create products and services.

2. Speed up time to value

The highest performing businesses in financial terms achieve a shorter time to value by continually speeding up their innovation and launch processes.

In a time where COVID-19 disrupted and drastically changed consumers’ lives, the agile concept of fast-turnaround has been key to survival and financial success. Top performing organisations understood that there was no time to gold plate requirements and produce perfectly engineered new products. Instead, they quickly served customers with restricted but safe offerings before building on them.

Local authorities across the UK, for example, suddenly needed to support thousands of vulnerable people who central government asked to ‘shield’. These people were advised not to go outside for 12 weeks, meaning they had to rely on others for needs like food and medicine. To manage this sudden demand, we partnered with Amazon Web Services to develop and deliver a wellbeing automated call service within a week. Putting this in place was much faster and more cost effective than standing up a fully staffed call centre, and it quickly ensured councils could triage the huge volumes of people shielding to prioritise those with immediate needs. Launching the new services quickly met immediate needs while allowing time to make improvements to remote social care delivery.

As organisations now learn how to operate in the uncertainty of the post-COVID-19 world, they shouldn’t go back to slow, research-heavy release cycles. To navigate the uncertainty of our new reality, organisations should:

  • invest in the right resources, technology and organisational structure to let people collaborate at pace and make quick, data-informed decisions
  • quickly scope opportunities and validate initial concepts by launching them to test them with real customers.

Can old dogs learn ingenious new tricks?

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3. Design for simplicity

Simplicity is critical to financial performance. A simple organisational design removes the complex structures and excessive layers of management known to hold back organisations.

COVID-19 has shone an even bigger spotlight on the importance of simplicity. The operating environment moved too quickly for complex, circuitous processes to keep pace. In these unprecedented times, top performing organisations have found what’s really important to what they do and stripped out the complexity to streamline processes for rapid delivery.

Technology business Arm, for example, had simple structures in place in their IT department. That meant they could rapidly mobilise teams to support Arm Connectivity Services customers, such as critical health services, elderly care and lone-worker safety systems, that were experiencing new challenges during the pandemic. They were even able to offer a standby IT team as part of contingency plans for military field hospitals in the UK.

It’s clear that complex organisational structures can’t continue to create physical and virtual barriers. To build simplicity, organisations should:

  • have clear, simple operations and leadership structures that allow innovation and ingenuity to flow
  • shift from rigid roles and hierarchy to empowered cross-functional teams that collaborate with simplified governance.

4. Build to evolve

Flexible organisations can rapidly establish and scale new capabilities.

As organisations have pivoted in response to COVID-19, organisational flexibility has become the difference between success and strife. For example, as the crisis in the UK escalated, the Government phoned and asked for our urgent help. The challenge: to deliver enough ventilators for 30,000 patients. We had just eight weeks to do it. So, we applied our science, engineering, biosciences, manufacturing, technology and management consulting expertise to determine the best approach for the government to take. We cast a wide net, choosing partners who would normally never be part of such an effort, including our own competitors. Throughout the response, our ability – and the ability of the wider team – to flex through the many challenges we encountered proved critical to its success. In the end, every patient who needed a ventilator had one.

Now, organisations need to embed this flexibility to thrive in our new reality. They need to radically revisit their planning and decision-making approach to:

  • use advanced data analytics and artificial intelligence to better predict the market
  • foster a culture of flexibility that welcomes change.

5. Liberate your people

Top-performing organisations have created an agile work environment that’s dynamic, encourages collaborative work practices and empowers employees at all levels.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a light on employee self-organisation as people have adapted to changed working practices at unprecedented speed. For example, one global bank we’ve previously worked with on their agile transformation has used the transition to remote working as a spur to work in flatter, more collegiate structures. This has included extending previously closed-door meetings to more people virtually, sharing previously privileged information via internal digital channels and encouraging remote feedback on organisational design from all staff. This means people are more bought into change activity, which is also now happening at a faster pace because of the reduced hierarchy.

The trusting relationships that are essential to remote working and at the core of agile organisations are paying dividends through the COVID-19 pandemic. As we emerge into our new reality, organisations can’t go back to command and control structures. To do this, they must:

  • revisit their vision and purpose to ensure employees can connect with them
  • adopt a mindset that embraces uncertainty
  • empower staff to safeguard their own health and managers to look after the health of their team in a stressful environment.

Organisations can learn valuable new tricks from COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed people’s expectations of work and personal life, organisations can’t afford to go back to the old ways of working. Their employees and customers won’t allow them. Yet the future, although uncertain, is full of opportunities. Those that embrace the five dimensions of organisational agility will be the ones to capitalise on those new opportunities at pace.

About the authors

Claudia Pellegrino PA business design expert
Stephen Hughes PA IT transformation expert Stephen is a leader in Lean and Agile methodologies having driven adoption of Agile at a number of our largest clients.
Claire Ramsbottom PA business change expert

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