For a while now, we have been talking about entering or indulged in the rhetoric of living in a VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) world. It seemed fashionable and indeed, sensible to think of our world that way. We now know the ground under our feet has shifted. It is getting increasingly difficult to make the connection with the strategy we made very recently, and we don’t even know what going back to work will look like.
This is new territory and the future is most certainly not likely to be an extension of the past. Therefore, the current turbulence is resulting in interesting leadership behaviours.
This too shall not pass: It seems to some leaders that the crisis is here for good. They don’t seem to have the time or the mind space to think about the future after the pandemic or how to even look for opportunities now. The entire focus is on the crisis, emergency response, liquidity, renegotiating contracts, etc. as they wait for the inevitable end. While it seems like the end of the world in some sectors, is there not a tomorrow or a revenue opportunity now?
Renegotiate targets: There are quite a few organisations and executives busy redefining the targets for the year. Every passing month brings about intense debates on what should be the revised targets. For these leaders, the preoccupation is to ‘hold their people accountable’ for numbers—they perhaps don’t fully appreciate the fact that they will be revisiting the numbers in a month’s time.
Start clever initiatives: The Covid-19 crisis has triggered a massive enthusiasm for initiatives. They range from head count reduction, cutting of fixed costs, building digital interfaces, to moving to the cloud, giving up office space, flattening the organisation structure to selling assets. In many organisations, the outcomes are modest relative to hype. In many cases, the outcomes are notional as they find implementing all their ideas not easy.
The problem is the premise. The fundamental structures, norms and processes aren’t required to be changed for life after the pandemic. While the leaders go out on to webinars and speak about the emerging ‘new normal’, many are clearly not preparing their organisations for that.
Reimagine: Which brings us to the last category of leaders—a relatively small minority. They seem to think there is an opportunity to redefine their customers and organisations after they address the crisis. These are profound and far-reaching changes that will give them the best shot at future opportunities. What can we learn from them?
* They clearly think about crisis response and thriving in the future as two aspects, each requiring considerable leadership attention
* Most of them have addressed crisis response adequately. While there is oversight on this, the processes seem to run on auto pilot
* They are redefining for themselves what their customers will value. Therefore, how will the future product, service, and customer experience look like? They don’t know all the answers but are ahead in thinking about them. If the past cannot be projected into the future, what do you work towards? Are there scenarios emerging based on rigorous analysis/debate, leading to creating flexible strategies, that can be implemented in quick time?
* Given these, current organisation structures are likely to slow things down. Some interesting ideas are being debated—should companies have a few agile teams than just have lines and boxes? What is the life of an agile team and when does it go back to its home function/s?
* Debate on what differentiating competency will be critical for the future and where it can be acquired from
* Building resilience seems to dominate discussions. What is the cost trade-off?
There isn’t much precedence and good leaders are creating their unique answers for questions that are being asked for the first time. Sometime in the future, we will have management theory around dealing with a situation like today. Till then, leaders of organisations will have to depend on discipline, vigorous debate, analysis, innovation, and close monitoring of current operations to thrive in the future. This will call for significant trust amongst teams and individuals in organisations—building that should be a big priority for leaders. They should resist the temptation of falling back on the comfortable, past norms/strategies unless they prove they can be applied in the emerging business model.
It is an opportunity for them to be like startup entrepreneurs rather than executives of conglomerates.
Views are personal. The author is partner, Deloitte India.