When we first entered lockdown, it seemed one of the biggest challenges our businesses faced was making the transition to remote and socially distanced working.
Even the largest, most complex organisations have been forced to reset; operating with greater agility and flexibility without which the prospect of failure will have been more prevalent.
It soon became clear that work will never be the same again. In fact, this is just the beginning of a new journey as society and businesses find new ways to operate.
There is a general consensus that closing down was easy compared to the journey we all now face in starting up again.
But while the way that countries and companies will need to adapt over the coming weeks, months and even years is uncertain, what is guaranteed is that we’ll need to redefine how our organisations operate to help us reset, stay agile, and respond to changing needs fast.
For many, this will be their toughest leadership test yet.
Having spoken to a number of business and people leaders over the past few months, I wanted to share a few thoughts on how business leaders can best confront the challenges and opportunities the ‘new normal’ presents.
I have long believed – now more than ever – that the businesses who win will be those who make it easy for their people to rapidly learn together and from each other. That will be the only way to ensure your organisation is equipped to respond quickly to what is likely to be an unpredictable and bumpy road to recovery.
Learning will be at the heart of the post-pandemic reset, and there will be a need for every person at every level to embrace everyday learning.
McKinsey research shows that organisations with an agile operating model show substantial improvements in both execution pace and productivity – critical attributes perhaps now more than ever – but also that those with a mature agile operating model have been able to respond fastest to the crisis.
Operating with high levels of agility is often unfamiliar to big business, however the current crisis has forced organisations of all sizes to adapt rapidly to new realities and ways of working. Even the largest, most complex organisations have been forced to reset; operating with greater agility and flexibility without which the prospect of failure will have been more prevalent.
This is an entirely positive thing.
In their Q1 earnings report, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months”.
Recent data from McKinsey shows that we have vaulted five years forward in consumer and business digital adoption in around eight weeks.
Likewise, in a recent interview with The Times, Tanya Bagchi – Group People Development and Talent Director at Legal and General – shared that “What Covid-19 has done has taken the horizon that we saw being six, twelve, twenty-four months away to now. Suddenly a lot of the barriers have come away.”
But Legal & General’s approach has been different to many big businesses. They have focused on not only creating the conditions for their leaders to be agile – creating a space for them to share and collaborate in a purposeful way – but on developing the right mindset too.
Moving quickly at the beginning of the crisis was critical. But embedding the right mindset and capability to sustain that through the pandemic and beyond will be the only way to help our people avoid burnout, upskill, reskill, and help our businesses survive.
This requires deep-rooted culture change, but the pandemic has created a window of opportunity and a new receptiveness that can be a catalyst for that.
As Gemma Paterson, L&G’s Head of Development Experiences and Innovation, told The Times,
“This period has made people more open to experimentation – the fact the whole world has shifted means people are more open to getting involved, trying something new that’s digital and sharing their experiences. We have a community of leaders collaborating, sharing and accessing resources on Hive Learning. That’s something we might have got to at the end of 2020, but we’ve been able to do that in a couple of weeks.”
The CEOs I’ve been speaking to who I believe will be most well equipped to weather this ongoing storm are those who are focusing on supporting their people and equipping them with the tools to push their organisations forward.
What does an agile mindset look like?
I have long talked about teachability as one of the critical qualities business leaders need to succeed. It’s an essential attribute of someone who can successfully adapt and change their ways of working to meet market demands time and time again.
They don’t have to have great intellect, but they need a passion for learning and an understanding of how to turn everything they learn into action.
Learning is not just about absorbing information – it’s about understanding why you are absorbing it, what you will do with it, and sharing what you’ve learnt with your peers so you can work through solutions at pace and at scale.
At the heart of this is Change Thinking – ” Taking a different approach to old problems, often assumed to be ‘the way things are’ ”
The pandemic has forced this approach on many of us, as old solutions in many cases are no longer relevant, but many of us still have a long way to go.
We spent a lot of time trying to embed Change Thinking when I coached the England team.
One example that highlights its power comes from Jason Robinson – a World Cup winning rugby player who made a significant change to the way we played rugby by embracing Change Thinking.
Jason was an explosive athlete with a gentle personality and a sense of humility that I instantly warmed to. When he came off the bench against Italy and again against Scotland in the 2001 Six Nations, his debut was magnificent and he was untouchable.
But on the Monday morning after the match, I received an email from him. “Hi Clive, I really enjoyed the game but I’m just watching the footage. Take a look at the tape”.
It was typical Jason: he had spent Sunday night going over clips and evaluating his performance. As he did so, he wrote down the timings of some of the key moments.
There were four occasions in that game when he had made a clean break only to be scrag-tackled by a Scottish player who managed to grab his shirt and wait for reinforcements while holding on for dear life. It was another moment in my career when I was stopped in my tracks, struck by sheer disbelief…
Why are we being so stupid? Why are we wearing baggy shirts with collars? Why are we arbitrarily following conventional kit designs without challenge and asking why? And why am I handicapping my best attacking weapon and providing opponents with handles to catch him?
As I began to think about this problem, I searched online for images of Cathy Freeman’s iconic Nike outfit that was one of the defining images of the Olympic Games in Sydney a year earlier. It was an iconic skin-tight all-in-one suit that even had a hood, and that bucked the trend of what athletes’ uniforms had looked like previously.
As I looked at the image of these athletes in their uniform, I thought to myself ‘just imagine how difficult it would be to stop Jason Robinson in that’.
In the end it turned out we were not allowed to design an all-in-one strip, as laws stipulate that players must be wearing shorts and shirts as separate garments. But Nike were brilliant in working with us to create something totally unique that would prevent players being able to grab hold of our shirts in the same way – just in time for the World Cup in 2003.
The final part of this story involves a crucial moment in the 2003 quarter final against Wales. Jason Robinson changed the game with one of the most explosive runs in World Cup History, finding an invisible path through red shirts with a breath-taking change of pace.
When you watch that run again, you will see how many Welsh players try to put a hand on him – but they cannot catch the fabric of the shirt and scrag-tackle him. If we had been wearing the baggy shirts of the previous season, we would never have scored from that attack, and we might have crashed out of the tournament.
Did we win the World Cup because we wore skin-tight shirts? Probably not. But this development of the kit came to be a pivotal moment that defined the power of “Change Thinking”. I was determined to think differently, and laterally, about old problems or situations usually taken for granted, inherited without challenge or assumed to be simply the way things were.
Another important thing to note is that our ultimate solution came from many of us working through this problem together. Jason identifying the problem, me taking inspiration from Cathy Freeman, the Nike team helping us find a solution, plus many, many other inputs along the way.
This is proof that innovation rarely comes from one leader thinking through a problem alone. Innovation happens most often and most quickly when different people with diverse perspectives come together to share ideas and work through problems together – each building on the other’s thinking and learning a lot in the process.
As Stanford Academic and Author Niall Ferguson writes in The Square and the Tower:
This is now truer than ever in our increasingly virtual world.
The best ideas and solutions to challenges can come from anywhere – from the leader, from the graduate, from the person in an entirely different department, from the person fresh out of school, from the person fed up with having their shirt pulled.
A leader with an agile mindset seeks out diverse opinions, new ways of thinking and empowers their team to work free of legacy shackles, try new things, and pay it forward.
And a business leader with an agile mindset looks to technology to help them scale that approach.
How to use that mindset to react to changing needs fast
With the England Rugby Team, we worked hard to embed ‘Change Thinking’ as part of our daily routine. And we did that by creating practical processes to help us do it.
The best innovations happen when people take a pragmatic approach to problem-solving. Identifying a problem, seeking perspectives from multiple sources, adapting their behaviours or solutions, and moving on to the next opportunity. This is sometimes called a ‘Start-up mindset’ but what it really means is favouring action over research and testing over deep analysis.
I coach every team I work with to do this using a process I call 3D learning. Here’s how it works.
Step 1 — DISCOVER information and knowledge: Begin by unpicking the information at your disposal and gather as much as quickly as possible. You don’t have to know every piece of data but some places to start might be… What’s the problem that you’re trying to solve? For example, why is the supply chain no longer effective? What does the data tell us? What are your peers’ observations about this problem? Have they already found a solution already that you could borrow? What’s happening in other industries? Are there standard practices elsewhere that you could leverage? Does something another company does translate to mine? Does something in sport transcend to construction?
Step 2 — DISTILL: The next step is very important. You need to disseminate all the information you have discovered into a succinct summary of Key Steps. Share it with your leaders and peers and ask if they have any thoughts on how they’d do something differently. What’s the most pragmatic set of actions you can come up with that will help you test whether a new approach will work quickly? People often refer to MVP (minimum viable product), but I like Minimum Viable Path – what is the fewest number of Key Steps we can take to affect change and can we create a Checklist?
Step 3 — DO: Once you have identified your Key Steps and Checklist, how do we practice these so that we can do them better than anyone else? My friend Charles Mindenhall – the Co-founder of digital venture builder Blenheim Chalcot – recently wrote an article about the need for more businesses (and indeed our government) to rapidly test new approaches based on sensible hypotheses, rather than waiting until they have the perfect set of information. Back to the start-up mindset, those who do (and empower their teams to do too) often get the best outcomes most quickly.
Technology can help you scale and rapidly repeat this process time and time again. At Hive Learning, we do this by creating digital communities or peer learning networks that bring people together in one central place to collaborate and accelerate problem-solving and ideation. This crisis has shown that organisations that delegate decision-making down to dynamic networks are more effective than traditional top-down ways of working – do whatever you can to bring these to life in your organisation.
Time to reset
In short, coming out of this crisis, leaders should focus on creating platforms that facilitate both individual and institutional experimentation and learning at scale.
But first, they must embed the right mindset and cultivate a culture that champions learning, collaboration, and action above all else – it’s time to reset.