April 2020 | Point of View

The pandemic can change business for the better—if we embrace the agility it’s created

Technology has always evolved faster than humans. Now, for the first time, behavior is changing faster than technology.

The pandemic can change business for the better—if we embrace the agility it’s created

As a technology executive, I have watched companies run in circles trying to align business and technology so they can work faster and smarter. While technology advancements have enabled business agility, human behavior has been the greatest barrier to transformation.

Suddenly, everything changed when the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly changed everyone’s lives—both personally and professionally. But, it also forced companies and executives to work with the very laser focus and speed to which they have aspired.

Technology has always evolved faster than humans. Now, for the first time, behavior is changing faster than technology. It’s not that we suddenly came upon new ways of communicating remotely or new artificial intelligence and analytics capabilities. Rather, the crisis forced people and companies to work differently. By doing so, companies are achieving the goals they have long strived for under the banner of “digital transformation.”  

What’s changing for the better?

Here are the behaviors that enabled organizations to react to the crisis faster and more effectively:

Accelerated decision making and alignment 

In complex business scenarios, moving fast is a perpetual challenge. But executive teams had to make many major decisions rapidly, often without all the information they would have liked. As consultants, a clear, easily understood strategy is always the first step we suggest, and this situation has forced leaders to do just that. By being precise with their problems, they are focusing constructive debate narrowly and eliminating analysis paralysis—to their organization’s benefit.

Leadership teams have also had to change their approaches to governance, gathering decision-makers more frequently and on shorter notice. I typically held structured bi-monthly meetings with my leadership team. Now, I have shorter (25-minute) stand-up meetings four days a week. When there is a decision to be made, we don’t wait for the next steering committee meeting. We pull in the key stakeholders and jump on a five-minute video call. A clear strategy provides empowerment and accountability, enabling more leaders to make faster, better decisions. This begs the question, did you have too much governance and structure before? A willingness to relax governance, without eliminating it, enables decisions and actions to move faster.

Solving the issues of this crisis situation has also required working across functions. Where internal “silos” are often a barrier to change, in the past month I have seen more multidisciplinary teams come together than I’ve seen over my entire career. And, that happened in days, not months. So not only is everyone making faster decisions, but they’re making better decisions because everyone is aligned to one clear strategy.  

Using more data – faster

It’s no secret that many companies have struggled with data analytics. When working with clients, we always try to get them to pinpoint the business issues they’re trying to solve first—before implementing technology or building large-scale governance. Now, because business issues are clearer than ever, companies are finally allowing them to drive analytics instead of the other way around. In other words, companies aren’t asking: What new analytics capabilities do we need to improve insight? Instead, they’re asking: How can we better use the information we have today to address our business issues right now? Solving the latter typically takes far less time. And extending this approach post-pandemic will boost companies’ analytics capabilities moving forward.
Here’s an example: We have a client in the financial services sector that is using analytics to understand the impact of changing economic conditions on their clients—such as unemployment rates—to ensure they are offering relevant products to their commercial customers. While this process would take months normally, they were able to make progress in only several weeks given the urgency and focus on a specific business issue. Other customers in the healthcare and consumer goods industries are quickly embracing the ideas of “digital twins” to simulate different scenarios and identify potential process change improvements to manage the uncertainty. 

Embracing agile approaches and getting comfortable with failing fast

Companies typically view “agile” in the context of IT teams – but the method is much broader. It’s about creating a business solution that isn’t necessarily perfect but is out there quickly. At West Monroe, we pulled teams together to imagine new solutions and in a matter of days are sharing them with clients for feedback. Our cycle time to fail fast has drastically shortened. This is what the best digital companies already do: experiment, fail fast, and learn.  

We’re helping our clients work with MVPs, too: We helped a large healthcare practice stand up a new telemedicine capability in one week and then built upon it to add more necessary functions. Under “normal” conditions, that may have taken six months to introduce. 

Communicating and collaborating in an all-digital world

Remote work thrust videoconferencing to the forefront of communication with both colleagues and clients. Participants see the art and photos on our walls, the books and magazines on our shelves, our T-shirts, and even our family members and pets. After a few weeks of this, I feel closer to my team and some clients than I have in the past, indicating how digital interactions like these can bring even more meaning to relationships.  

And we abruptly learned the best ways we can work with each other digitally. Whether that’s document-sharing or navigating digital collaboration workspaces to mimic whiteboards in a conference room. I have seen clients delay longer-term investments in these types of tools and ways of working but am now witnessing them pull forward these investments, which will benefit them in the long term as they can better collaborate with employees, partners, and customers across geographies and take advantage of a distributed, global talent pool.

Getting to the point and focusing on value creation

With the imperative to act rapidly, meaningful interactions are particularly important. If it’s not meaningful or to the point, it’s just noise. I’ve been in more meetings that have requested “no PowerPoints” and just a quick set of bullets that explains the idea quickly—because it’s never been more important to only invest in things that drive financial value. The formality of presentations has been stripped down to one thing: the expected financial value from your business investment, informed by data.  With projects more tightly focused on specific value creation and short-term delivery, we can reduce project definitions and statements of work to less than a page, with obvious benefits. 

Where there’s a will, there’s a way

It is important to note that these behaviors are interrelated. Any one of them feeds off of the others. The point? Their collective impact is a bright spot for executives in an otherwise incredibly challenging crisis. I’ve had more than a few clients tell me they wish they had always been able to work this way. Moving fast is both rewarding and fun.

But human nature has a way of falling back on what we know and what is comfortable. My challenge is this: Learn from this experience and be intentional about evolving the way you work going forward. Stay committed to having a clear, strategic intent. Where there is a will there is a way: The more we can harness the speed and agility that our teams have exhibited during the pandemic, the better off our businesses will be as we move into a new future, resulting in digitally enabled and resilient business models. And the closer we will advance the goal of business and technology strategies being one and the same.  

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