This article first appeared in Real Leaders.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a catalyst that accelerated change in almost every industry. What used to take some companies five years to accomplish remarkably took them only five months during the pandemic. From at-home grocery retailing to working at home virtually, companies digitized their businesses and changed how they delivered services at unprecedented rates.
Many businesses had no choice but to rethink how they created value for customers and how they operated. New ways of delivering existing services were created. Entirely new products and services were developed and launched in record time.
While some companies were better positioned to deal with the challenges the pandemic presented, others struggled.
Given this, consider these three relevant questions for all business leaders in the context of their own organization and industry:
- Why did it take a pandemic to accelerate innovation and change?
- How did your organization fare?
- What will your organization do differently to stay ahead moving forward?
Businesses that were far along on their digital transformation — those who’d already moved to a more agile organization and had a deep understanding of their customers — were in a better position to deal with the challenges the pandemic introduced. They could seize the market opportunities it presented.
For example, the unprecedented rate of change and disruption occurring in the financial services industry, along with changing customer preferences and expectations, had caused some organizations to already rethink everything they do, adopt technology, and be more agile and innovative.
US Bancorp of Minneapolis was well positioned coming into the pandemic, having gone through its own agile transformation the few years prior. This enabled them to maintain business continuity, effectively serve customer’s needs, and continue to quickly launch new products and services. Robinhood and Reddit had business models and the digital reach that enabled them to continue to create value and grow. Peloton, Roku, and Zoom were poised to pounce when the lockdowns hit.
For some companies, lockdowns increased the demand for their products and services. However, their ability to meet those demands was contingent upon how agile and digitally connected their organizations were both inside and outside. For US Bancorp, products and services that used to take them years to develop took them months by the time pandemic struck, giving them an advantage going into it.
Other businesses were not so fortunate. Coming into the pandemic, what used to take them years still took them years, putting enormous pressure on organizations. Traditional retail is one such example. While low-end retailers like Walmart and Target weathered the storm (in part because they were allowed to stay open), many other high-end retailers couldn’t quickly adjust, as evidenced by the many closures in 2020 — including Pier 1 Imports, Papyrus, and Victoria’s Secret.
Although some companies weren’t as well-positioned as others coming into the pandemic and had slow cycles of innovation and technology adoption, some rose to the occasion and adapted. They rapidly adopted technologies and found new ways to deliver products and services to add additional value to customers.
For example, one European company that delivered on-site quality management auditing services found new ways to conduct remote audits through the use of video inspections and how information was shared. Now, this is being sold as having more value to customers than the way it used to deliver these services and this approach will outlive the COVID pandemic.
Moving forward, smart manufacturing technologies, remote sensing and monitoring, and direct connections into systems will open up more possibilities to innovate and provide quality management services that create even more value and better outcomes.
The opportunity to create more value for customers was always there
Every industry has examples of products or services that were traditionally delivered one way, but fundamentally changed in response to the pandemic. You can probably think of some in your own industry and company.
The opportunity to radically change how a service is delivered and how customers are engaged has always been there: the technology to enable it has been available. Why did it take a pandemic to force change in some industries and for companies to discover different ways of working that also create more value for both their companies and their customers? When the pandemic fades and is no longer a catalyst for accelerating change and disruption, what will be the driving force?
Many organizations learned they could get done in months what previously took them years. Why was it taking them years? They learned they could fundamentally change how a product or service was delivered and consumed, creating more value for the customer. Why didn’t they see this before and act on it? These are fundamental questions that every business leader should consider.
How to stay ahead
The pandemic has provided many important lessons. It will serve business leaders well to reflect on their organization before the pandemic, what they observed about their organization during the pandemic, and what learnings they can apply to help make their organization more agile and resilient in a world where the pace of change only accelerates around them.
Here are five things to consider moving forward:
1. Speed. If you discovered that it took a pandemic to get done in months what usually takes years, identify the underlying root causes that previously held back progress and address them. Your organization needs to be able to keep up with the pace of change without having a virus to force the issue. Next time it will be a competitor — or possibly a new entrant not constrained by a legacy culture or traditional industry practices — that disrupts your business and creates more value for your customers.
2. Opportunity. Don’t underestimate the opportunities that exist to proactively transform how you can create value for customers, disrupt your industry, and differentiate. It’s possible to do things very differently than your organization may have imagined. When everyone in an industry does something the same way, a wonderful opportunity exists to find a way to do it differently and create additional value for customers.
3. Advantage. Did you come into this pandemic well positioned? If your organization has the ability to think differently, is digitally capable, and can develop and implement forward looking strategies quickly, you are in position to put your competitors on the defensive, create more value for customers, and drive growth. Don’t wait for the next pandemic to strike and force everyone in the industry to change. Be proactive and continually find opportunities to rethink what you do and how you’re uniquely creating value for customers. It will be harder for competitors to catch up.
4. Risk. Pre-COVID, risk in some corporate cultures might be doing anything that changes the status quo or is difficult and could fail. During COVID, risk was not doing what was difficult and needed to be done. Post- COVID, organizations have a choice regarding which path is riskier. How does your organization perceive risk?
5. Strategy. Evaluate your organization’s strategy development capability. How is it helping the organization think differently, challenge assumptions, and take an outside-in view? Is it able to effectively facilitate bringing together a deep understanding of customer needs, opportunities in the value chain, and the organization’s unique competencies to reimagine how value is created? Can it develop strategies that lead to differentiation and growth — not just differentiation from your competitors, but differentiation from how your organization has been doing things?
The winners moving forward will be organizations that are agile, digitally capable, and proactively willing to rethink everything they do. Applying some of these lessons to your own organization will help position it in front of change, not behind it.