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Agility before, during and after the COVID crisis

Warped city reflection in water

Agile leadership was becoming increasingly widespread before the current crisis happened. COVID-19 has accelerated its adoption and highlighted its benefits.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, agility was already a highly-prized leadership asset. Agile leaders can develop agile teams that, in turn, create agile businesses.

Agile businesses tend to be more innovative, better at meeting customer needs and more productive. They are also able to adapt quickly to the ever-changing competitive conditions in our volatile and unpredictable world. And our world has never been as volatile and unpredictable as it is right now.

What COVID-19 has done

The unprecedented levels of social and economic disruption caused by the coronavirus crisis have forced many businesses to rethink everything they do - not only to survive, but to emerge stronger. We need to reinvent the future for our organizations so that we are more relevant than ever to our customers’ changed reality as well as embedding the spin-off benefits from the crisis.

One example is the switch in all walks of life to virtual meetings – which for organizations reduces costs of travel, improves carbon footprints, and expedites decision processes. Virtual working has had a surprisingly positive impact on agile working in some of the organizations I talk to, reducing politics, increasing the speed of decision making, creating more inclusive meetings and making it easier to talk to customers frequently.

Developing increased agility and holding on to benefits such as virtual working across our organizations will help leaders to identify new growth opportunities, adapt with speed, and flourish even during these challenging times.

The need for disruptive thinking

During the current crisis, some organizations are still in survival mode. However, many are now seeking to adapt and identify how to come out of it stronger. Disruptive times require disruptive thinking.

It’s often helpful to let go of much that was precious in the old world if we want to embrace the new. As leaders, we need to create an environment where our people are breaking free from the old assumptions and rethinking how best to meet future customer needs. 

Thinking disruptively helps us to make sense of what is happening to and in our organizations. In many sectors leaders need to rethink their strategy to exploit the structural shifts that are happening in markets and across geographies. As leaders, we also need to step back and be willing to drop our assumptions. We need to think the unthinkable, to re-imagine what our customers will need as they emerge and interpret how their markets have changed.

Reframing the future

A good starting point is to focus on what your customers really need to move forward in the virtual world where we now operate. 

It is often very helpful to get your team together to make sense of what’s going on – to you and to your customers. Discuss what has changed, what the implications of that change are, and how you can create a coherent vision to help you succeed in this new world. Redefining your customer vision provides the direction and purpose necessary to engage your people in the journey ahead.

As you map out the changes going on around you, identify the ones which fit with what you are good at. Where is the overlap? How can you play to your strengths? If there isn’t a very good fit, it may be necessary to ask whether you need to build or buy the strengths you require to remain relevant in this new world.

Planning for now

Once you have reframed the future with a coherent view of the opportunities you have to transform and adapt your organization to the new world, it is time to rethink your priorities based on the priorities of your customers.  

With your team, identify the priorities to focus on now and keep this list under regular review. In good agile style, this means listing out all the tasks needed to succeed and then ranking them based on what will add the most value to your internal or external customers. Put the most pressing priorities at the top of your list and select only the ones that you can get done in a reasonably short period of time. Too many priorities will simply clog up your system because none of them will get the attention and resource it needs.

Support your teams to do those tasks at the top of your list first. Encourage them to test and learn as they go. Return to the list regularly to review what they have achieved and assess whether the next set of priorities are still valid. One thing we can be sure of is that circumstances and our customer’s needs will continue to change over the coming months and at different rates in different parts of the world. 

What lessons can we learn for the future?

Based on what we have considered so far, what are the most valuable lessons we have learned that we can take forward from this period of intense challenge and change?

1. Focus on what your customers need

From a strategic point of view, the most important thing you can do is to define your customer vision. Think about what your customers need in the new virtual world and what you can do to provide value for them. This approach helps us to reimagine how we might create maximum value in a totally different way. 

2. Think disruptively

Faced with interruption and upheaval, leaders and teams need to think disruptively. Disruptive thinking is about challenging our current assumptions to generate new ideas, it is about learning from others, and it is about reframing the future.

3. Plan iteratively

Situations like COVID demonstrate that detailed long-term plans simply don’t work in a world that is constantly changing. Be prepared to amend your plans, working in an agile way to adapt to ongoing change. And it’s okay to hold your hands up if you make a mistake in the planning, as many of us inevitably will, as it shows the value of learning through doing, experimenting and adapting to customer feedback. Without mistakes, your plans are probably too conservative.

4. Ruthlessly prioritize

A crisis can help you to focus on what really matters. Many of us will have stripped out lower value activities as we have juggled home working and homeschooling, for example. This ruthless focus on the activities that are likely to have the most positive impact on your customers and therefore on your business performance increases productivity and drives value.

5. Build more cross-functional teams

Cross-functional teams bring together a range of skills, ways of thinking, and experience so that they can get moving and deliver good quality outcomes quickly. They need to be clear on their purpose, clear on their objectives, and able to decide for themselves how they deliver these objectives together. Aim for a minimum viable product, the simplest first cut of a new product or service, which you can then test with customers and get valuable feedback on, which will help you then focus on what your customers value most in the next round of work.  

Through these teams, you can cause a shift in culture across your organization towards being more agile, more focused, and quicker in producing new products and services that meet the needs of your customers. Coming out of the crisis you can build real momentum because you are delivering what your people need, quickly.  

Looking ahead

If your leaders can develop teams to face future challenges, your organization will be better able to react and adapt to ever-changing circumstances. Through building trust, creating a culture that brings a united sense of purpose to the organization, and empowering the teams around you to take responsibility and make decisions with speed, you will be well on the way to building an agile business – one that is more customer-focused, innovative, resilient, and competitive.