It’s been tough leading organisations in lockdown; tough in the ways you anticipate (the known unknowns) and in the way you don’t (the infamous unknown unknowns). For businesses and leaders, the need to adapt isn’t new, it’s the DNA of success – what’s new has been the scale and speed the change needed to happen at. Simultaneously there have been tectonic shifts in the needs of your team, organisation, infrastructure, customers and markets. And that’s never happened in most of our lifetimes.
Danny founded the Digital Strategy Consulting group in 2000 to help firms win in a digital world. He’s president of the Digital Training Academy, set up the IAB trade associations, is recognised as a founder of the UK’s digital industry, an accomplished author, and has coached the world’s biggest brands on marketing and transformation in 50 countries.
We work across dozens of countries and organisations, and what consistently shone through was the creativity and innovation in how people and their teams responded to the pressure. Many teams not only survived, they strived and thrived. Why?
It starts by understanding these shifts, so as a leader you know how to respond.
Tectonic shifts to a new landscape of how we work
Many fundamentals within business have changed…
- Remote working has become accepted, the era of presenteesm has ended
- Focus is more clearly on personal output, achievement and value – rather than simply participation
- Embedding virtual teams that cross functions, locations and often timezones, has become the norm, working in new ways that access new talent
- The organisational behaviours of adaptability and agility have mainstreamed
- Personal behaviours of adaptability, agility and productivity have been recognised as critical to drive this
All these are tectonic shifts, because they’ll be part of working culture long after Covid, lockdowns and vaccines. We may come back to the office, but in a new way. The lessons of lockdown are to put in place the approaches and structures that will let your organisation and talent thrive in this landscape.
The new landscape brings with it new challenges. In terms of work behaviours there’s a need for greater self-management and focus, as well as setting up an effective working environment at home. Beyond having the right space, creating structure to working life is key – from screen breaks and outdoor breaks, to fixed work times, to project meetings, to managing non-work time. For example, since March our core team join daily 9am 15-minute stand-up meetings for planning their sprints, and 4pm online “tea-times” to share memes and a cuppa. The broader team join them for regular quizzes as social events, and there’s more communication to keep people briefed.
Techtonic shifts to a new digital landscape
Within less than a year, we’ve seen the journey of digital transformation jolt forwards by more than 5 years. We’re living through a tectonic shift in how organisations work, driven by techtonic disruption.
Creating organisations that thrive demands understanding what is happening and where it’s heading. Let’s unbundle a few of the strands…
- Digitised customers: accelerated digital connection channels for customer connections – these are across all markets and most visible in switches to ecommerce and remote field sales
- New distribution channels: the digitisation of customers has many knock-on effects, the most visible of which are the new channels and intermediaries such as the explosive growth of ecommerce and home delivery seen in most countries (such as Deliveroo, DPD, Amazon, Glovo etc.) the “last mile” barrier in commerce has melted, so brands and retailers that had the right ecommerce strategy saw strong growth even in weak economies
- Digitised supply chains: accelerated digital connections back through the supply chain, pulling the supplier ecosystems for both products and services into a new level of dynamism
- New technology stacks for every firm: these enablers of remote-first organisational design have mainstreamed from start-ups or boutique specialists like ours, to be business-critical in organisations the size of Unilever and Coca-Cola
The technologies go far beyond Microsoft Teams, Zoom, collaboration tools and elearning. Lockdown made getting the right digital nervous systems behind your organisation, business-critical. From dashboards to project management, leaders need their eyes on that dashboard and their hands on the keyboard.
Overnight, technology made the impossible, possible.
Once the new technologies are in place, the lessons of lockdown are to follow through with new behaviours, ways of working and organisational design that are digitally native. The first television programmes were “radio with pictures”, the first online news was “print on-screen”. Treat the technology not as a destination, but as the springboard for creating a new organisation. Build approaches and structures that will let your organisation and talent thrive in this landscape.
Tectonic shifts in talent and the labour market
Collectively these disruptive approaches have reshaped what’s needed, not just for an organisation to strive, but also for individuals to thrive. This has implications far beyond the skillset you’re hiring. It stretches across how you approach accessing new talent and the way you want your business to work.
- What behaviours will you look for?
- Where will you look?
- How will you train them?
- How will you support them?
Ivan Pollard wrote that “in the midst of these challenging times, the challenge does not create character, it reveals it”. That’s as true for the talent you’re acquiring as much as it is how your organisation has behaved – something else to add to the talent checklist. Reflecting on Ivan’s words, our company pledged at the start of lockdowns not to furlough or let go any staff in 2020. Looking after your team never mattered more; easy to talk the talk, much tougher to walk the walk.
So another lesson of lockdown is to rethink the profiles, skills, behaviours and the values you look for. What you need today may be quite different than what you needed yesterday. Getting it right makes your teams stronger.
Maintaining real momentum in a virtual world
For many leaders, the critical pressure has been how to maintain momentum when so many of the familiar tools were suddenly blocked. Those organisations that thrived combined the lessons from the tectonic and techtonic shifts to unlock new ways of working.
From the projects we’ve led during the past year, here are some of the techniques that work brilliantly.
• Virtual workshops
Workshops are a key tool for creative thinking, building new solutions, and planning. That experience can work well in a virtual environment. It typically delivers the vast majority of results of the traditional face to face approach, and gives the added benefits of enabling more people from more locations to take part. We’d run virtual workshops since 2004 and had already virtualised our portfolio, but 2020 was the year they came of age. Tip: allow for much more planning time, and coach your workshop leaders on virtual delivery.
• Virtual strategy development
Use virtual workshops and collaborative working tools to build and rebuild your key strategies. They work for the business strategy, and not just the execution. When your markets are undergoing a tectonic shift, revisiting the strategy can’t wait. Complex multi-stage business strategies can be co-created brilliantly through a structured set of virtual workshops. Tip: invest in the planning and research process to ensure you have the right inputs.
• Virtual coaching
Senior executive coaching shouldn’t stop when the doors to the office are closed. The paradox is that supporting teams is more important in a remote working culture, so this is an area to dial-up. Tip: consider executive coaching moving beyond the c-suite.
• Online events
From the annual sales conference to the new strategy launch, big events are key in the organisation’s calendar. We’d run webcasts since 2001, already had soft studios in the homes of all our senior team, and in lockdowns ran live events this year for groups of up to a thousand people, and they delivered the vast majority of benefits – and at a fraction of the usual cost. Tips: invest in the right people and technology to run them, borrow lessons from broadcast media for the professionalism of quality, and put in place strong contingency plans. Create a compelling programme and balance the heavy content with breaks and networking.
• Elearning courses
This is the year elearning became the lead channel for knowledge and skills. We’ve been running our own elearning since 2003, but what’s different now is the attitude of learners; there’s a broad recognition of the importance of building your own skills, investing your time, and leaning in. Tip: the challenge isn’t finding content, it’s finding relevant and high-quality content that’s worth your team’s time – so if you’re planning learning and development programmes, maintain the rigour of starting by focussing on the key learning outcomes of what you want people to think, feel or do differently after training.
• Elearning production
For your flagship projects and the strategic elements of the business, creating bespoke elearning drives the behaviours you need. That’s become more important now than ever, and we’ve had partners commission bespoke courses from 200 people to 250,000 people. We began producing partner’s elearning in 2000 when it was the poorest cousin in the L&D family. It’s now become the first choice. Tip: identify the key projects where you need teams to behave differently, and create bespoke learner pathways for people at different levels within your organisation, as well as external partners you’re taking on the same journey.
• Rapid content creation for a shifting landscape
To brief your own teams and customers, invest in content creation alongside webcasts. In crisis management comms, we were co-creating videos and global cascades for partners within days and developed new ways of working. Tip: Follow the agile approach of start-ups, focus on speed to market and accept that if you’re creating in days rather than weeks it’s about “better done than perfect”.
The tectonic shifts in work and techtonic shifts of digital disruption are here to stay. Many firms won’t be able to deal with these shifts, but for those that put in place the right techniques, they’ll be agile, responsive, effective, and resilient for whatever the world and their markets unleash next.
Thriving in the new workspace means organisations will work radically differently, and the faster and more fully business leaders embrace that, the greater the opportunities for their teams and their firm. Those lessons of lockdown are lessons for the long term, not just for today.