The need for a Covid-19 agile strategy

The impact of Covid-19 and the need for an agile strategy

20th March 2020

Will Barnett



Understandably, many of us are busy reacting to the short- term upheaval and change caused by the outbreak of the Coronavirus which has developed at lightning pace. We are focussed on getting through this initial turmoil. However, this short article outlines an approach to developing a Covid-19 agile strategy that can help you to succeed this year.

Little more than eight weeks ago, it was business as usual, punctured by intermittent news updates about a novel virus in the largely unknown Chinese city of Wuhan. Like many, I thought that this would be another SARS related local outbreak, which would affect that region and the customers they serve.

However, like no other disease for a generation, CovId-19 has officially become a global pandemic taking almost every major eastern and western economy to the lowest level since the start of the 2008 recession, wiping billions off companies overnight and sending markets in to free-fall.

Perhaps the most striking changes are the ones day to day in all our lives which have never previously been discussed or rehearsed. Offices globally have already shut up shop, schools have closed or are closing, exams delayed, workers are operating from home either in defensive self-isolation or self-imposed quarantine.

Some positive news

Despite initially adopting a contain mindset, the shift in UK government's approach under the guidance of science, appears to be taking a reassuringly more aggressive lock-down approach, to mirror the successful containment in parts of Asia, notably China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore which appears to having some successful outcomes.

China New Case Count

Image courtesy of Worldometer

At this stage, few of us have any idea how long the pandemic will last. Some, optimistically believe it will blow over in the summer, others think that it will have a lull but return again in the winter months.

Many strategies appear to be holding out for a vaccine before anything gets back to normality and we can return to work, and the markets get back to normal. However, despite some very fast vaccine development news, even a radically accelerated vaccination release path with take 12-18 months to reach most people.

Governments and central banks are gearing up for all eventualities while focusing on easing the immediate panic and burden. Apart from the hording of toilet rolls, the Blitz mentality seems to be alive and well across the UK and people are digging in and making the best of it thinking how we can help our neighbours, which is nice to see.

Looking beyond the immediate term

While we are rightly focused on immediate term safety and access to the essentials, we should also take the time to consider the wider impact on productivity and performance both this year and next.

If the pandemic lasts for a year (or longer) as it realistically could, what could this mean for your strategic objectives? What are the best- and worst-case outcomes this year and how can you mitigate your major risks? It's not something most are focused on immediately, but once we stabilise into a new way of working, the longer-term questions will start to be raised. More importantly perhaps, how can we develop an Covid-19 agile strategy?

The timeline of change and what it could mean

When thinking about strategic change and human motivation, we often refer to Maslow's hierarchy of needs first published in 1943. His useful model for thinking about individual's immediate most pressing needs must be fulfilled in order for humans to feel comfortable.

At the most simple, basic level, we need food and water. The highest level of needs includes our fulfilment of creative and higher order needs.

Given the recent unprecedented scale and immediacy in changes to our working and everyday lives, it struck me that perhaps the changes we will go through could follow a similar model. In thinking about immediate versus long term needs, it can help to focus the mind on how to develop a Covid-19 agile strategy that takes account of today's needs and how to ensure longer term positive outcomes.

Our immediate term focus is on day to day, but to once we have addressed immediate needs, we should then take stock of the medium and long term to understand the impact of change and how to most successfully adapt.

Start thinking strategically now

Assigning some very rough time frames to each of the stages shows that by the time we actually take to focus on the changed environment, the year will be over and we'll be moving in to the final quarter of the disease (hopefully).

However, from an objectives perspective, failure to properly assess the impact early enough could be commercially devastating.

Stages of agile strategy development

Stage 1 - Safety & containment

The immediate focus for all organisations, their employees and families has to be on safety. What can we do to both reduce the potential of infection to our staff, family and friends? Many people will be thinking about working at home, reducing contact and ensuring there is a flow of food and products in the immediate term. As the information and understanding increases, individual's focus on work is highly distracted while will have an immediate and negative impact on organisation's normal operations.

Stage 2 - Stabilise the normality & reduce damage

After the initial period, most people will be working remotely if possible and the focus will be on getting back to a semi-effective way of working in order to reduce the impact on work. For some organisations, this will mean:

  • Far fewer (face-to-face) meetings
  • Much greater emphasis in online collaboration tools
  • Much greater emphasis on communications to keep everyone synced
  • Using tools to track the ongoing delivery of day-to-day activities

It is clear that reliable internet and collaboration tools will be critical during the time when were in a new way of working. Using tools as the primary ways of working where before they may have been supporting tools for the odd cheeky (half) day at home on a Friday. Now these are mission critical tools that have to work and support us.

What is more, having ways of managing your strategic execution plan as the landscape shifts and collaborating on remotely are now more critical than ever. Leadership teams should start to consider the longer-term view as early as possible and how to shift their execution plans.

Stage 3 - Develop new ways of operating

Once we move to a stable way of working with existing tools, we could find new ways of operating which felt uncomfortable before but become the norm. For us, it was quite uncomfortable having important meetings with clients via remote conferencing software whereas now, it's expected.

What else can we do with our customers to collaborate faster and become better at serving them? The immediacy of new tools means new opportunities could well arise and we find ways to better integrate with clients or at least between colleagues digitally. For certain industries, this will certainly be more prevalent. In tech, perhaps less so, but in insurance where a good deal of business is still performed face to face, this could represent a major shift in operations that could be a struggle for many.

However, as with any major change, the organisations and individuals that can adapt to take advantage of the tools and new methods will be the winners both in this interim stage and potentially longer term.

Stage 4 - Measure and mitigate longer term strategic impact

Once we have overcome the immediate hurdles and challenges and we have a semblance of normality, the key question is what is the impact on what we had planned to do this year before the situation arose? For some, it will involve a refocus on what we're trying to achieve, but perhaps re-assess how we're planning to achieve them and how far behind we are given the disruption to operations.

This strategic refocus involves being clear on what the objectives are. What the new risk to those objectives are but thinking about potentially entirely new ways of executing those objectives. All of this has to be done remotely, with less face time and with new ways of being agile to the changing environment.

Organisations that continue to just react, may well find that once the situation returns to normality, the landscape has changed entirely and competitors that find better ways of working have overtaken them.

Stage 5 - Adapt to the longer-term change

After we have developed an approach to assess what it means for our 2020 strategy, what then?

How many of our assumptions about the stability of the markets and general approach will have changed forever? In some industries, it's possible the changes that we've seen introduced overnight could bring quite drastic long-term changes.

At the time of writing, the airline industries have grounded 70% of their flights and are already asking the government for double digital-billion pound bailouts. If this situation persists for a year, what will our airline industries look like in 12 or even 18 month's time?

As a break to everything we've known, this presents great anxiety for us all. But equally, the change will mean that many organisations operate differently. The faster we can understand the shift in landscape beyond our initial changed ways in working, the faster we can adapt and recover to the new norms and generate a truly post-Covid-19 agile strategy.

Agile adaption with a strategic mindset

The theme of this article is on agile adaption both to immediate term change, your 2020 objectives and then the longer-term future. I'll end this article with a couple of questions to consider.

  1. How well is your organisation set up to adapt?
  2. Do you have the tools and capability to adapt to the immediate changes and then the longer-term threats and opportunities that will arise potentially from very different ways of working?

If you don't yet but would like them, we would love to offer help and support to see you through the immediate and longer-term strategic change.