Applied futurist Tom Cheesewright, in conjunction with Canon, outlines what businesses must do to create an adaptable and flexible working culture
The pandemic showed the critical importance of adaptability. While many organisations dialled up their digital investment last year and progressed more rapidly as a result, more fundamental changes are needed if they are to remain nimble as we emerge from this lockdown. Here are three steps every business should take
1. Restructure your capabilities
Businesses that won hearts and minds (and routes to new revenue streams) during the early days of the pandemic did so by rapidly pivoting to offer new services: retailers went online; fashion designers turned to making facemasks; and alcohol manufacturers produced hand sanitiser. Businesses such as these saw the opportunity to take one of their key capabilities and apply it to something they’d never done before.
In the past, organisations would flourish by learning to do one or two things well and streamlining the business to perform those functions as efficiently and profitably as possible. Based on this success, they grew into larger and larger monoliths, superb in their core capabilities, but not great at adapting.
This model becomes very vulnerable in times of sudden, dramatic change. Just think of all the bricks-and-mortar retailers that have gone bust after being undercut by online rivals. In the new world, organisations need a different structure – a flexible network of different independent functions that can be re-combined to match new gaps in the market. Amazon is perhaps the most obvious example of this. Amazon Web Services, now one of the company’s main profit drivers, came out of its internal IT infrastructure, which the business was able to package up and sell to other companies.
To begin this process in your organisation, start with the lowhanging fruit. Do you have an incredibly efficient proprietary IT system that could benefit other businesses? If so, repackage it and sell it as a service. Are your comms functions inefficient and siloed across your organisation? Rather than maintaining several mixed capability communications functions for different business areas, recombine your pockets of strong capability into a distinct internal agency that serves each department as a separate account.
2. Empower your employees
Thriving in a rapidly changing world is not just about large-scale market shifts, but also about being able to make small changes quickly. Brands that empower their employees to use social media, for instance, are often able to respond first to current events and, in doing so, court public favour. Just look what happened when Weetabix suggested baked beans as a topping for its breakfast cereal: brands that responded quickly with jokes on the subject, from Nando’s to the NHS, received major kudos and social engagement – crucial for longterm customer loyalty. This kind of rapid reaction is only possible if social media teams are empowered to make decisions and not slowed down by long sign-off chains.
In many departments and organisations, this kind of rapid decisionmaking is blocked by protracted, convoluted approval processes. In the worst cases, a simple decision by one employee must be signed off not just by their manager, but by their manager’s manager’s manager. This can easily become a cultural problem: staff who aren’t used to making decisions may by default push responsibility up the chain, letting inaction set into the business.
Give people the training and confidence they need to make operational decisions themselves; cut down the sign-off chain; and provide the tools to make those workflows as smooth as possible. Digital technologies that enable people to collaborate on ideas across multiple locations and then execute them with minimal sign-off will be vital.
3. Refocus on research and strategy
Pushing operational decision-making to the edges of an organisation will free business leaders from low value, labour intensive tasks and allow them to focus on the strategic work that is so essential to staying ahead.
The key to adapting quickly is to see disruptive changes coming and to act proactively, rather than reactively. You need to be able to understand the trends and technologies that will transform your market and how they interplay with your business’ unique strengths and weaknesses.
This needn’t take up large amounts of time. Dedicating just one day to research every six months will help you develop a sense of what’s coming and what it means for your business. Start by talking to customers, partners and employees about what frustrates them – these common complaints will point to the weaknesses in your organisation. Then, research the outside trends affecting your industry and those adjacent to it by reading industry news and analysis, company reports and whitepapers from hot new start-ups and corporate trailblazers.
Put these two pieces of research together and assess how the top trends will impact your major weak points. Will a new technology improve your inefficient invoicing system? Will changing consumer expectations make your slow customer service a dealbreaker?
In the new, more adaptable business structure of the future, every part of your organisation needs to be able to act quickly and independently and recombine easily with new and different teams. The enablers for this are smooth workflows and seamless collaboration.
The pandemic has shown that, in our increasingly interconnected and digitally enabled world, the status quo can be flipped on its head in a second. The only way to adapt to this ever changing world is to build adaptability into the core of your organisation.