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Unsteady state: Building collaboration, innovation and responsiveness during unprecedented change

The coronavirus crisis is challenging business and tech leaders in new and unprecedented ways – but the skills developed by successful leaders can forge better business and government going forward

As recently as January this year, we saw a successful digital and tech sector driving some of the world’s strongest and most competitive economies. We saw the UK government looking beyond Brexit and towards forging new trading partnerships with access to a more open, global marketplace and export opportunities.  

Fast forward two months, to March 2020. Every government and industry found itself trying to rapidly adapt to operating in extraordinary, unstable conditions where organisations and people have no option but to restructure around working remotely, however unprepared they were. Everywhere, business is searching for ways to adapt and become more resilient by investing in new systems – change and solutions need to be successfully deployed in a few days, rather than a few years.

For leaders, there are the added personal pressures of supporting yourself and everyone who counts on you through a global crisis that encompasses every aspect of business, work, society, the economy and our personal lives. These factors have come together to create unprecedented instability and the seismic shift in circumstances that we are experiencing. Confronted with all this, leaders are relied upon to make the best possible decisions to help navigate their companies through this storm, and through entirely uncharted waters.

The answer to these challenges lies not in the marketing and technology-driven narrative of digital transformation, but in authentically executing the key business principles of digital transformation.

This means evolving our organisations’ culture to be less averse to risk and innovation, transitioning towards more collaborative, dynamic, flexible and adaptive ways of working. Culture change on this scale and with this sense of urgency requires a modern and inclusive leadership style, where people collaborate because they are empowered and motivated to do so, as well as because collaboration tools technically enable it.

Integrated and sustainable

Integrated, interoperable systems and data may not be available to organisations that have not previously put the foundations in place. But leaders who want to operate a business sustainably in unstable and uncertain circumstances must rely on better, quicker access to joined-up processes, data and insights to improve their situational awareness and decision-making. 

Perhaps this is something for investment boards to reflect on the next time an innovation proposal doesn’t immediately satisfy the required cost-benefit criteria.

The executive top table needs to step up to the challenge and opportunities presented by running an organisation in an unstable state. Boards need to shape an agile governance and decision-making framework that enables the business to mitigate and manage risks better, and approve operational change programme recommendations in a responsive, adaptive way.

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We must rebuild the trust, confidence and capabilities of our people, so our organisations can respond, recover and re-energise as quickly as possible when a crisis hits. It is vital for leaders navigating the business through instability and uncertainty to remember that our people define the most enduring characteristics of our organisation – our purpose, values and culture. 

However sophisticated and powerful, the technology we buy is simply a tool – one that serves the business by allowing us to build an efficient and integrated digital operating model, and which facilitates the productivity and effectiveness of our people through consistent, integrated data and processes, and by providing better remote and flexible working capabilities.

Organisations that truly become “smarter” and transform themselves successfully are the ones that harness the diversity and “smart” available in their people, as much as they harness smart tech.

Culture and leadership

We should always want our leaders to be competent, trustworthy and to use knowledge, reasoned logic and professional discipline in fulfilling their responsibilities. However, now more than ever, we need those leaders to also be accessible – to communicate and work in ways that others can relate to – and to be seen as champions and supportive team players.

In an unstable state, where business circumstances, needs and risks are complex, often unclear and evolving, and where the future is far from certain, we need leaders who relate to and collaborate with their people, as well as ably guide and inspire them.

The culture and leadership capabilities above are not determined by an organisation’s size. Rather, these capabilities come from the business culture and leadership approach of organisations that have systematically trained and shaped people to work and behave in these ways.

It is not credible for leaders to work in traditional risk-avoidant ways on Friday and reinvent themselves over the weekend, so that on Monday they have become business transformation leaders. We need to commit to and invest in people, reskilling them and encouraging new behaviours and ways of working.

Large government agencies and corporations often have a disadvantage when confronted with the need to respond and adapt quickly in an unstable environment. Leaders here are frequently the by-product of spending much of their career in a culture that actively seeks to avoid risk and resist change, while sustaining a stable and predictable operating state.

Large organisations are therefore frequently burdened with significant investment in legacy systems and greater design debt. Transforming the culture and operating models of traditional organisations requires considerable investment and leadership capability, commitment and persistence in doing the heavy lifting.

As citizens and customers, we will increasingly rely on, and want to have trust in, leaders and organisations that are responsive, adaptive, agile and effective in meeting our needs.

Yes, our leaders must initially focus on the immediate realities of the Covid-19 crisis. However, every decision that leaders make must also help organisations and people recover and become more innovative, collaborative, resilient and adaptable.

It is vital that leaders have the wisdom and vision to learn from the coronavirus crisis, to help government and business build a different but better future for everyone.

Elizabeth Vega is a member of the Cabinet Office Small & Medium Business Panel and chair of the Developing Culture & Capability Working Group, DIT Northern Powerhouse export champion and ScaleUp Institute Access to Markets committee member, as well as Group CEO at Informed Solutions.

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