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How To Stay Relevant in Disruptive Times

Why do you need to stay relevant? What makes it important for business leaders to stay relevant, especially in times of crisis?

Well, the current COVID-19 situation is very telling about the times that we live in. While many businesses have been moving towards becoming more active online and using technology-backed tools to be more agile, this COVID-19 situation has really pushed companies to literally switch how they work within weeks, even days. Businesses that were not able and ready to make this switch have suffered tremendously during this period.

But at the same time, some businesses have made the transition quite smoothly and have been able to keep the business running remotely with employees working from home. This has been possible not only because of their use of technology-backed tools but also because of their ability to rejig their operating model quickly. More importantly, this has been possible because of the leaders at the helm.

In this post, I will share four specific steps for you to take to innovate your way out of this crisis. So, read on!

COVID-19 is a test case for leadership. While the leader’s primary responsibility is to keep the team safe, cohesive, and productive, what should the leader be focused on in the midst of a global disruption like this? I believe that every crisis is an opportunity for innovation. Crises present us with unique conditions that allow innovators to think and move more freely to create rapid, impactful change.

We are seeing this already playing out. Around the world, beermakers and distilleries have shifted production to hand sanitizers. In Italy, a start-up engineering company began quickly using 3D printers to create the valves used in ventilators. Fashion businesses are producing protective gear, gowns, and other supplies for hospitals.

When we look back to this health crisis, I am sure we’ll see the impact it had on innovation in many sectors – be it medical devices, healthcare processes, manufacturing and supply chain innovations, collaboration techniques, education, and so on. Service businesses in particular are likely to see a lot of innovation in how services are created, packaged, and sold.

If you believe the world will go back to being what it was before the pandemic, I’m afraid you are sadly mistaken. Once customers, businesses, and employees are exposed to a certain way of operating, it will be difficult for them to go back and work as if nothing changed. Actions taken during the crisis will shape how companies perform in the long run. Some companies may even continue to pursue opportunities first identified during the crisis.

A very important point to remember is that reputations are built — and lost — during times of crisis. Companies that are demonstrating good citizenship by helping with shortages, or by making major donations, are probably hoping that consumers will remember their actions when the economy returns to normal.

Companies that treat their employees or customers badly during a crisis will face major challenges rebuilding when the storm has passed. Similarly, if leaders in business segments fail to lead the way in terms of innovation and customer service, it is inevitable that other competitors will emerge with better products or platforms.

Eventually, how a business responds to such vast and dislocating change depends on how the leader views the situation – as an opportunity or as a disaster.

So how have you and your company tried to innovate and adapt during this time of crisis? How are you trying to stay relevant in the market? In the next segment, I’m going to talk about some specific approaches that you can adopt to manage this crisis and opportunity for innovation.

So, we were talking about how important it is for leaders and businesses to reinvent and innovate during a crisis. But remember, rapid change is an ongoing process – not just linked to a crisis. Change emanates from changing customer expectation, entry of new players in the market, the introduction of new-age technology, socio-economic factors, new laws, and also changes in executive management or structural transformation of organizations. A crisis only accelerates the pace of change. So these approaches that I am going to share now are relevant, whether you are facing a crisis or not. 

#1 Align around a Purpose

One of the key leadership challenges in day-to-day organizational life is inspiring engagement and generating momentum towards the goals of the organization. This becomes even more important in times of crisis as there is a big jump in the nervous energy present in the workforce. Leaders who can harness this energy and focus it on a clear purpose in resolving the crisis will be able to lead the team to success. They will be able to tap into a wave of new ideas, as individuals feel compelled to share insights, they normally would keep to themselves. They will be able to lead their team from fear to a clear shared goal. After all, courage is defined as the ability to overcome fear for a good purpose. In this way, a crisis has the potential to create the organizational courage to take action in support of a purpose that would be unthinkable in times of calm. Also, know that this constant effort to get the team aligned around a purpose will pay dividends even in normal times.

#2 See Systems From Outside In

When organizations want to find opportunities to innovate, they usually bring in an external consultant to get an outside perspective and fresh ideas. A crisis can actually play that role very well because it brings to the fore the vulnerabilities and problem areas in the organization which may have been ignored earlier in the drive to keep growing the way things are. When a crisis hits, we are compelled to confront the truth about whether our systems work or not. They make us question our disaster recovery plans and business continuity plans. Being able to zoom out and see things for what they are can suddenly throw up opportunities for operating more efficiently or serve our customers better. A crisis is a good opportunity for you as the leader to give a hard look at why you do what you do and whether you do it in the best possible way.

#3 Shake Up the Organization

Organizations, over time, tend to fall into a familiar and predictable way of operating. The very rules that help the organization become more efficient can keep it from evolving and responding rapidly to opportunities thrown up by change. A crisis changes all that. Companies are forced to do away with bureaucratic overheads of review and approval and allow for fresh thinking to be applied quickly to address the challenge. So, how are you responding to this crisis? Are you still trying to stick to the old and familiar ways of taking decisions? If yes, then, believe me, the organization is in for some rough times. What you need right now is for communication to move upwards and downwards and sideways without any barriers of hierarchy because through these communication channels, you get valuable inputs for your strategic decision-making.  

#4 Create a Bias For Action

A crisis brings with it a lot of uncertainty and anxiety. This can lead to a paralysis of action as leaders and team members grapple with their worries about losing out on things that have been important to them thus far. But dealing with a crisis demands movement and change – the pace of ideation, decision making, and implementation all increase dramatically. If a leader gets trapped in focusing on how to protect what they have rather than identifying what opportunities the crisis is throwing up, they will remain stuck in the present – or an analysis paralysis situation. On the other hand, if leaders choose to focus on quickly creating experiments, seeing what happens, and experimenting some more, they will encourage the freedom to test different thinking, to fail fast, to learn, and to move forward – in short, to innovate.

So there you have it – four approaches to help you innovate and stay relevant despite a crisis. These are

#1 Align around a Purpose

#2 See Systems from Outside In

#3 Shake Up the Organization

#4 Create a Bias for Action

Times of crisis present incredible opportunities for learning and growth. It is a time for experimenting with new technologies and approaches to operating your business. We don’t know how long this coronavirus crisis will continue for or how it will impact our economies and businesses but if we use it wisely as an opportunity for innovating, for learning and growing, we will come out on the other side stronger and more agile.

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