September 2022 | Point of View

Business leaders ought to use their newfound agility wisely

Responding to every wind of economic change can breed chaos within your company—and the larger market

Business leaders ought to use their newfound agility wisely

One of the pandemic’s primary business lessons was around agility—namely, gaining more of it. 

For most business leaders, the pandemic was like steering right into an iceberg. No one had the ability to miss it, given the meager warning time and the way our businesses (like ships) were built.

But that’s changed. And business leaders vowed to invest in digital and become more nimble.  

When West Monroe polled C-suite executives this spring, 57% said their ability to respond to new market forces had improved since the pandemic. Greater agility is exactly what businesses should be after in this fast-moving, digital economy. (For what it’s worth, I count West Monroe in that group.) 

However, just because you have greater agility doesn’t mean you should exercise it at every turn.  

Company leaders who respond to every twist and turn in the market (every economic indicator release and every piece of customer and employee feedback) are missing the point of agility. Responsiveness is a tool to be wielded when necessary—not every time a change is detected.  

As a professional services firm that works across several industries, we’re seeing clients and their competitors respond to new market forces, from rising inflation to the business-challenge-du-jour, in ways they were not able to pre-pandemic. With better data, faster decision-making, and new tech, they can pivot, but they’re pivoting a lot, and in some cases to the point of overreaction. This is causing new initiatives to be dropped, really solid long-term strategies to be tabled, and fundamental (and necessary) changes to their organizations to be abandoned—including digital operations, products, and services. 

As an executive, I can spot three reasons why this is happening:

  1. No C-suite leader wants to be caught flat-footed again. Most leaders have become obsessed with proactivity, which is a direct result of having to lead from behind in multiple crises over the last couple of years. They just want to get ahead of the next one. 
  2. No one wants to be second-guessed. In business, it’s safer to adopt the herd strategy when you’re answering to stakeholders. “I did what everyone else did” is easier to defend than inaction or choosing to zig when everyone else zags.  
  3. The magnetic pull of groupthink is powerful. From news stories to social media, everybody seems to be writing, posting, and talking about the same story every day. (How many stories can we read about Elon’s feud with Twitter or the new “quiet quitting” wing of the workforce?) This phenomenon often brings a false sense of importance to certain trends or news stories that then lead to groupthink. If everyone hears about the same thing for days, leaders tend to think it’s a “thing” they need to respond to, and then they do. 

I am not saying business leaders should sit idly by while things change around them. As responsible executives, we absolutely need to track inflation rates, employment trends, customer feedback, our sales pipelines, and other indicators that matter to our businesses. We do this regularly at West Monroe. Sometimes, changes in those indicators should be met with decisive action, just not every single time.  

Real damage can be done to a business and the market by altering priorities too often and whiplashing stakeholders. It’s like working for a moody boss: if you’re always unsure what they’re going to do next, you’re placed in a standstill afraid to act, which has the exact opposite effect of why you gained more business agility in the first place. 

Here is the mindset I’ve adopted instead: 

  • Follow your own indicators and work your plan. Every business has unique indicators and KPIs that it follows. Stick to those and don’t get swayed by the masses. Take the action that’s right for your business—not the one you see “everyone else doing.” Don’t ignore the outside world, but don’t let it run your business either.  
  • Don’t be afraid to hold the line. Peer pressure in business is real.  It’s felt within your own executive ranks, within your industry, and throughout the larger market. It’s incredibly easy to get sucked into the “us too” vortex, but resist it. Inaction is just as formidable a decision as action, and don’t be afraid to zig when everyone else zags, just be able to back it up.  
  • Don’t get caught up in the story du jour. Read the news to stay informed, but don’t let it cloud your thinking. Remember, for every business story written there are a thousand others that didn’t get told. Just because it ends up in the press doesn’t mean it’s representative of the market writ large. 
  • Don’t forget the other lessons from Covid. Your company likely had a near-ruinous experience from Covid—and for most, investing in digital was the answer. Those investments will have to endure a downturn to make progress. Don’t abandon ship, just miss the iceberg.  

Agility is a powerful tool. Its power is one of the reasons everyone wanted more of it after the pandemic, just use the tool wisely. 

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