If there is one word we’ve heard with great frequency in recent months, it would be ‘unprecedented’. While so much of what we’ve all experienced in 2020 is the definition of extraordinary, it’s important to remember that many businesses have faced existential threats and crises over the years - only to emerge stronger resulting from the experience.
From IBM to Converse, Lego and even Apple, there is much we can learn from businesses that have emerged from acutely difficult times and bounced back strongly.
Examining the recovery journey of businesses such as these, there are 3 key themes that emerge - ones which are relevant for us as we consider how to thrive in a post-COVID world:
1. Be revolutionary, not evolutionary
“The electric light did not come from the continuous improvement of candles.”
I love the pertinence of this insight from the former head of the business faculty at San Francisco University, Oren Harari.
One of the biggest dangers for organisations and leaders is to fall into the trap of viewing strategy and innovation as merely an exercise in continuous or evolutionary improvement. If we’re not careful, we can work very hard at merely making a ‘better candle’ than we did last year without realising that we’re on a collision course with obsolescence.
Leaders must think creatively, act boldly and change quickly. Evolving over time is simply no longer enough. This is especially true in the midst of a crisis that’s seeing rapid, fundamental and structural changes occur in the world around us.
The challenge is that crises can easily trigger an instinct of fear that drives us to retreat to what is safe and predictable. We must resist that urge. The success stories of 2030 and 2040 will be written in the coming 3-5 years by businesses that have been bold enough to be revolutionary - even in the face of massive uncertainty.
A powerful example of this principle in action is Amazon’s rise to dominance. In the midst of the dot-com crisis of the early 2000s (which saw the company lose 90% of its value in 14 months), Amazon took some enormously revolutionary steps. While their competitors opted to aim for efficiencies and cut costs to ride out the storm, Amazon launched their Marketplace initiative and thus redefined eCommerce. Most significantly, this was also the time when Amazon made their first and most significant B2B play with the launch of Amazon Web Services. A revolutionary step indeed!
In the words of Winston Churchill, ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’ While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about some horrific ramifications, it also represents an enormous opportunity for businesses and industries to fundamentally re-think assumptions that have held true for decades. There is a reason that necessity is often referred to as the mother of invention. This crisis could well be the catalyst for revolution and reinvention that many industries and businesses have needed.
2. Identify the opportunity in change
Times of rapid change offer significant opportunities for growth for those who can anticipate the future and gear up for it.
COVID is seeing the acceleration of numerous trends that will prove to be game-changing and industry-redefining. In many ways, this crisis is seeing the future arrive ahead of schedule.
Of all the industries impacted by COVID, banking and retail are perhaps most pronounced. While success rates of the physical retail world have been dwindling steadily for years and digital options for banking and shopping have been made much more prevalent, full immersion in the online world has remained a thing of the future… until now.
COVID has understandably brought about an unprecedented need for online options for groceries and other retail services. With lockdown measures in place and the general fear of infection being widely felt, the incentive to conduct both purchases and transactions online is great. Handling money and interacting with physical stores simply poses too great a risk for many people and many are turning to the options of the online world.
Existing online businesses and e-commerce options saw extreme leaps in sales while hybrid services struggled to keep up with the increase in online demand. One online grocery store in New York jumped 60% in online activity in March 2020 compared to March 2019.
I’m sure many of us would have experienced at some point this year the effect of these increases in demand, with the delays in deliveries being almost guaranteed with most online purchases.
The clothing retailer, Zara, is among those that are accelerating their online strategies and fully embracing the digital age. Despite already owning multiple online clothing giants, Zara’s parent company, Inditex, plans to have 25% of its sales occurring online by 2022.
The company’s commitment to this goal is evident in its planned closure of over 1000 stores worldwide. This will enable the company’s renewed focus on their online platforms. Online shopping has been growing for years with brands like ASOS, and The Iconic conducting their business online for a wide market. However, with brands like this embracing their online futures so rapidly, our current crisis’s impact on this transition is clearly visible.
Also a member of this online conversion is the banking sector, with digital payments invading the banking world since the start of COVID. Many businesses and individuals have turned away the option of cash over the course of the virus on account of health concerns, and home delivery and online options for shopping have made online modes of payment much more prevalent. ATM and branch closures have come with this transition, offering banks the opportunity to save money on those operations.
Leaders within the Big 4 Banks are on the whole unanimous in their sentiments regarding this transition, viewing it as one which was bound to happen, but which arrived early and occurred rapidly. ‘Permanent change… has just been made in 10 weeks. It would have taken us another 5 years,’ states Ross McEwan, the CEO of NAB.
Many of the trends that have accelerated in recent months aren’t expected to reverse when this crisis passes. The opportunity now is to examine how COVID has permanently changed the behaviour and expectations of our customers and adjust accordingly. Now is not the time to long for a ‘return to normality’ but to rather embrace and redefine what normal is going to look like in the wake of this crisis. Those that can adjust quickly will be handsomely rewarded.
3. Think momentum not motivation
In difficult times, we often assume that the key to sparking productivity and rebuilding morale is to motivate or inspire ourselves and our teams. And while motivation has a place, the key challenge in the coming months is for people to be reminded what it feels like to ‘win’.
Success breeds success and after a crisis that has seen many of our business rhythms thrown into chaos (or shut down completely), breaking the shackles of inertia and getting back into a groove quickly will be critical.
In his bestselling book Atomic Habits, James Clear puts it well when he says “The best form of motivation is progress.” Rather than trying to shift the emotional state through motivation, we’d do well to make progress achievable and quantifiable.
Many business leaders are familiar with the notion of setting BHAGs or ‘Big Hairy Audacious Goals’ for themselves and their teams. However, to build momentum and give a sense of progress, we’d be better to focus on SBAGS (Stretching but Achievable Goals).
For one of my clients in the B2B software sector, this has meant each business development team member setting weekly goals for activity and having check-in calls every Monday with their team leader to celebrate wins and discuss learnings. While some of these weekly goals can seem insignificant in themselves, it is the sense of progress coupled with renewed confidence and momentum that team members are beginning to feel that matters most.
Former Intel head Andy Grove put it best when he said “Some companies are destroyed by a crisis, good companies survive them, but great companies are always improved by them.” Very few of us would have chosen the year that 2020 has been but if we play our cards right, this crisis can be a gift. Only we get to choose whether we will be in the group that merely survives this challenging time, or whether will be one of those organizations and individuals that emerges stronger and better as a result of it.
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