We need to respond to change, rather than change our ways of working to follow the plan

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In the light of the Cornonavirus situation organisations need to reconsider WHAT they are doing, not just HOW they are doing it. Just moving people to work from home is to play behind the curve, it assumes that the market that you derive your value from is unchanged – and that just isn’t true any more.

These are strange times, for many of us who are working in the professional services sector, there is a global move to working from home and there are many techniques and tools that are available to us such as Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts etc. However I want to challenge whether just focusing on those working practices is actually the best course of action.

We know that in complex, human based environments, feedback and learning are essential for progress and the best approach for that is collaborative working that delivers frequently to your customer base. Switching to remote working is going to hinder this, whatever tools you use it will never be quite as good as it could have been face to face. Simply telling staff to work from home is a mitigation strategy that attempts to negate the impact of the change. This is attempting to catch up with a plan, rather than really adapting to the change.

The reason for making this distinction is because I fear many have missed what the change really is. It is easy to see is as: I was working with colleagues interactively in the office, and now I am working in an isolated environment trying to do the same job.

However this isn’t really the change. If you were the only one to be now working from home, then fine, get a crash course in remote working tools to try and do the same job almost as well, but you aren’t. In fact it isn’t just your team that is impacted; it is your company, your competitors and more than that, your customers too. This change is also not for a week, or a month, and it is highly likely that in some areas, things will never completely go back to how they were. This change is HUGE.

 

The reality is that the norms of human interactions have been turned upside down in a matter of a few weeks. Things that we valued before, like catching up with old friends, have been pushed aside and new things, that we didn’t value much at all, now seem to be essential, like bizarrely, toilet roll. The current approach appears to be: “To change the ways of working while maintaining the same output”.  Regardless of how we do it, I would challenge whether the same output is actually what we should be aiming for?

 

We should remember that it isn’t the fastest or smartest that survive, it is those most adaptive to their environment. There is little benefit in effectively working from home to deliver a new app for cinema listings when nobody is going to the cinema any more.

When confronted with a substantially new scenario we naturally go through a three step process:

1     Assess the situation

2     Evaluate options

3     Implement and learn

 

Assess the situation

Start by taking a step back, challenge all the assumptions and accept the world has changed. Establish what the new situation is and how this has changed especially from the customer’s perspective. What are their needs NOW? Focus needs to switch to what will deliver value now rather than how to maintain working on what previously was going to deliver value.

 

I suggest the following actions:

  1. Immediately review portfolios of work and stand down any deliverables that are unlikely to receive the immediate impacts they were predicted to have.
  2. The product development lifecycle to be restarted in as many places as possible. Instigate small discoveries followed by ideation phases to really understand the impact of the changing world on their customers. Typically the ratio of this backlog building product exploration work to technical delivery is proportional to the level of understanding of the market, and as that is changing rapidly, the need for investment in this area has just gone through the roof.
  3. Assess the changes in the use of the products / services that are currently being offered and consider removing or reducing services that have seen a drop-off in use so as to repurpose efforts elsewhere

 

Evaluate options

Organisations need to go back to their fundamental purpose and look to understand how best they can fulfil that need in the current climate, their options are going to be linked to how impacted that purpose has been. A key question will be that can you fulfil your purpose when your customers are staying at home. Could you, like a restaurant who is in the business of feeding people, instead of expecting people to come to you, go to them? Can you do the equivalent of rigging up a truck with a barista coffee machine and drive along suburban roads like an old fashioned ice-cream van? In a new world where people aren’t encouraged to come to you, waiting for customers to arrive is a dangerous path to take. If you don’t offer you products and services online, but could, then there is no better time to start this than now.

When there truly are no options other than to wait it out and look to mitigate loss, then this may be the perfect time to switch to internal programmes of work rather than maintaining a very high service level to relatively few customers. Cutting staff is a distressing decision to have to make to reduce costs to survive, and I trust that those companies looking to do this have no other choice.

 

I suggest the following actions:

  1. Look to offer previously face to face services either door to door or over digital channels. It may require the former while the digital channel becomes workable.
  2. Consider the new data that has become important to us, can you access that, can you leverage that? For example if an organisation is delivering financial data to markets, then those markets are probably very interested in new dimensions on companies where data isn’t currently offered, because until recently it wasn’t relevant.
  3. Move transactions and offerings that would previously be in person to online, serviced by the same people that used to do this in person
  4. Ramp up internal work proportional to external customer facing work. Maybe this is the time to upgrade the servers, refactor that codebase, develop the internal training programmes package, or even just refurbish the office (switch bank cashiers to painters – we’ve all done a bit of DIY in our time)

 

Implement and learn

How organisations deliver against these changing needs given the new constraints placed upon them needs to be considered, and, as mentioned, this is where companies are focusing on remote working tools for example. However the changes needed are larger than this. Organisations that relied on footfall are going to need to reconnect with their customer base. Organisations that rely on teams delivering work are going to have to change how those teams are structured and controlled.

 

I suggest the following actions:

  1. The typical Amazon “Two pizza team” used to gauge team size is based off an assumption of human interaction that is no longer true. The emotional and bureaucratic cost when everyone is working remotely, rises considerably. Consequently organisations look to reduce their team sizes. I would suggest that teams in the region of four to five are likely to be able to work remotely much more effectively than larger groups.
  2. A centralised organisation that looks to control the actions of its people will struggle due to the reduced effectiveness of communications, the pressure needs to be on  how to delegate more. Empower teams that have the necessary information to make the decisions that they need to, and have leadership switch from making decisions, to ensuring decisions are being made.
  3. Arrange regular online or telephone based interaction purely for the purpose of interaction. We are social creatures and our mental health deteriorates when isolated. During a normal working day a large quantity of time is spent just talking to each other, laughing and smiling. These simple human interactions put us in a suitable frame of mind for doing the real work.

 

In summary, during these uncertain times we all need to be on the front foot about how best to adapt our business strategies and working approaches. To just focus on how to execute the same work as before, but from home, is akin to battening down the hatches in a storm. This is no simple storm, there has never been a storm like this before; what is needed is the ability to learn to thrive in a world of high winds.

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