There is no new normal - how businesses can adapt
Almost every business leader I’ve spoken with in the past few months has been in a panic trying to figure out the new normal. The global economy has turned on its head, and organisations in every sector have been forced to deal with unknown and changing situations.
Systems, processes, and market forces we counted on have become almost unrecognisable … or altogether disappeared.
Many leaders and commentators are trying to find safety and certainty by predicting the future. But the truth is, no one knows what the future will look like. There is no new normal, and predictions are useful only to the extent that we can safely and efficiently test them.
Just3Things is a young company, but we are built for these times. We have grown by helping both large companies and fast-growing startups focus on what matters and adapt to change.
We began as an internal tool and helped to scale OVO energy from startup to unicorn. Spinning out from there, we’re now supporting clients like Deloitte, PayPoint, the National Health Service, and Team Ineos establish their own new normal.
Given our experience, I wanted to offer some guiding light for those who find themselves a bit lost at sea. I’m going to show you how you can pivot quickly, successfully, and continuously to keep evolving alongside the economy.
In many ways, the answers lie in the truth we’ve all known for years—organisations need adaptability and agility. The coronavirus pandemic has only highlighted and accelerated those needs.
But even though we’ve known what we needed to do, most organisations have struggled with how to do it. Many startups can easily pivot, but large organisations not so much.
Think of Blockbuster and Kodak. They knew they needed to change to adapt to the new normal of home video delivery (and then on-demand) and digital cameras. But despite their past dominance, they couldn’t do it fast enough.
The winning companies coming out of 2020 will likely be those whose DNA is built for fast adaptation. This includes today’s giants such as Apple, Google, and Amazon, as well as others such as Zoom and Netflix who have found success within the tide of change, making the new normal their everyday normal.
However, it’s not too late for organisations that feel unprepared or behind the times.
There’s a systematic way to protect against the ever-changing world and make your company more resilient no matter what the future holds. The “Just3Things Way” provides a simple framework for the rapid innovation we all need now.
There are 3 components, described below. For each, I’ve offered a look at the “Established Way” that is no longer working, how the “Just3Things” Way works for comparison, and a suggestion for how to get started making the transition.
1. Show your people where you want them to go.
It starts with providing clarity throughout your organisation about what you’re working toward. Base your goals not on a laundry list of projects, initiatives, or features, but on the creation of value for the business and its customers.
Many traditional organisations are poor at clearly articulating their strategy and company level goals to their employees. They’re even worse at aligning activity to this overall strategy.
Leaders often complain of a “strategy-execution gap.” They don’t realize their own lack of transparency is contributing to the problem.
Harvard Business Review reported, “Most initiatives set up to execute strategy fail to deliver the intended benefits. Seventeen percent of large IT projects go so badly that they threaten the very existence of the company; a study of government projects in the UK revealed £2 billion in wasted efforts as a result of failed initiatives.”
Why does this happen? Most traditional organisations base their goals on outputs. They believe that success amounts to delivering specific programmes of work. The actual impact of delivering the programme is often an afterthought at best.
Teams receive specific directions rather than outcomes to achieve. This limits their ability to adapt. If they come up against roadblocks during implementation, they’re not empowered and incentivised to find another way.
Your people can’t focus their efforts on achieving the company aims if they aren’t in the loop about those aims.
They need clarity of the strategy and company-level goals to understand how their efforts fit in. Help teams understand why the work they do is important to the bigger strategic picture.
Then, ensure all work produces meaningful impact. The key to success is measuring outcomes, which are indicators of business value, not outputs, which are simply activity, and embedding this way of working as their new normal.
This allows teams to experiment and find the best solution to move the dial … especially important in responding to the unfolding crisis and global changes.
For example, my children’s school responded to the lockdown by creating a goal for year-1 children to learn their 2x table (outcome). But the way to teach them (output) had to change. So the teacher asked us to experiment with what works for our child. We ended up in the garden collecting leaves and arranging them into twos.
Publish your company strategy and corresponding organisational level goals on the intranet or similar. Challenge teams to articulate how their goals will help to achieve these overall aims.
Define specific targets for success. For example, you might want to increase website traffic by X%, or reduce customer churn by Y%. Allow teams to respond to these outcomes by defining the outputs (projects, features, deliverables) that will contribute to meeting the goal.
2. Focus your teams on what matters most.
The second factor is all about unleashing the talent and creativity of your people by prioritising your company’s most important outcomes and ensuring that the right people are positioned to deliver them, regardless of their function.
Traditional organisations typically do not think about prioritising their organisational goals, or asking their teams to do the same. If priorities do exist, there are usually too many of them or they aren’t clear to all, leading to confusion and misalignment.
Furthermore, they tend to structure themselves into siloed, function-based teams. Their goals can pull against each other, rather than bringing together the people best placed to achieve a particular goal.
Successful organisations ruthlessly prioritise. They communicate these priorities to their teams and ask them to also state their most important aims.
Since startups are known to be more adaptive, make your large organisation more like a startup as your new normal, or more accurately, like a collective of startups.
A huge cruise ship may carry a lot of weight and power, but it’s not all that nimble. Compare that to a flotilla of jet boats. They can all be running in the same direction while also individually navigating local conditions to find the best route forward.
Cross-functional teams make this possible for organisations. They’re aligned to customer outcomes and company goals but empowered to create and run tests with a high degree of autonomy. This allows them to iterate quickly and focus on meaningful outcomes rather than just outputs. They have all the capabilities they need to produce and launch basic, functioning solutions, then iterate and scale as they gather customer data.
Set just 3 organisational goals as business priorities. Communicate them openly to allow teams to align their own goals and activity to them.
Make sure your team understands the priorities. To check, ask 20 people within a particular department or workstream what they think the departmental priorities are. If you receive a variety of answers, that’s a sign you need stronger communication.
Test out bringing people together from different departments and asking them to focus on a particular goal. Make sure that the people you choose have all the skills required to deliver the outcome. If they have to rely on other departments for input, it will slow things down.
For example, an outcome to expand into 3 new territories may need developers to build the language capabilities, marketers to promote in those territories, salespeople to create pipeline and operations to handle logistics.
3. Track, learn, and adapt.
This third factor is about spotting what is going off track and adapting accordingly. It depends on ensuring that you regularly track and review progress toward your goals.
If you spot that something is going off track, how do you adapt? Empowering your teams to iterate toward the solutions customers want will achieve your business goals.
Instead of thinking of deliverables as defined work products, reframe them as tests (e.g. “We believe that if we do X, it will affect Y in manner Z).
What makes this feasible is delivering the smallest chunk of work possible to test the assumption. This way, teams can figure out what works before committing significant time and resources.
The Executive team spend months setting their annual goals, which are doomed to sit in a spreadsheet only to be dusted off 6 months or even a year later.
Information flow is typically hierarchical and slow, with management packs, endless meetings, and a lack of transparency.
6-12 month planning cycles result in huge amounts of resources committed upfront to an unproven project or programme with delivery months in the future.
Without customer-derived data, organisations have no way of knowing whether the solution will lead to the desired outcome. Often they don’t even know what outcome they should be aiming for or what problem they’re trying to solve.
Any customer insight organisations do have is usually centralised. Teams aren’t able to get feedback on their work quickly, making it impossible to test whether their products will actually work in the marketplace.
Decision making is centralised and handed down, discouraging (or even disallowing) empowerment and innovation within teams.
Decisions are escalated to senior team members, turning them into bottlenecks and putting them in danger of burnout. Meanwhile, capable but lower level colleagues become simple technicians with minimal engagement in organisational goals.
Such organisations struggle with complex dependencies that make it hard to produce meaningful results in a timely manner.
Goals are living and breathing with progress updated regularly. Transparency is key— by making information about goals, initiatives, progress, and learnings available to all, companies can cut down the drag on decision making. They can also reduce duplication of effort and eliminate the majority of their internal meetings.
Help teams focus on the desired outcomes (as defined above) and produce smaller iterations of work as tests. Get them in the hands of customers as soon as possible to learn from their responses.
Find out what changed as a result of your work. Learn from both the success and failure of experiments.
Quickly identify which tests are not making a positive impact. Stop wasting time, resources, and budget on them, and try something else. Remember to view them simply as information acquired rather than “failures”.
Based on the insights from any positive initial tests, commit more resources to delivering new products. As you do, keep testing and watching the outcomes to ensure they continue making an impact.
Critically, make it easy for teams to share learnings so the whole organisation benefits.
Track progress against your goals frequently and review this regularly. Make goals and activity transparent to a section of the company, allowing teams to be alerted to areas where their approach is not working and they may need to adapt.
Encourage teams to think about framing possible solutions as tests. You could start with just one team, and ask them what the smallest step is they could take to validate their assumptions.
Help them understand why starting small makes it safe to run those tests. It might take a fair bit of reassurance if your teams aren’t used to this way of working and making this their new normal.
Keep at it until they understand that failure will not be punished. You need your employees to risk failure so your organization as a whole can learn.
Commit more resources only incrementally as you get more data showing the proposed solution makes a difference for your desired outcome.
Make it easy and safe for different teams to share outcomes and initiatives. Replace meetings and management reporting with systems to share information across the company. This will cut down on hand-offs between departments and save time spent preparing and delivering progress updates for internal meetings and management reports.
For example, if the outcome is to increase customer retention by 10%, there may be an initiative to release a new feature, with the presumption that it will help retain more customers. Start by releasing a small version of this feature and keep a close eye on retention figures and customer feedback. This way, you’ll be able to determine whether it’s successful and worth developing further with more resources/time/budget, or if you need to scrap it and try a different approach.
Start looking for ways to incorporate these principles into your organisation. There is no new normal – we know it’s possible even for long-standing hierarchical organisations, because we support them every day to make the shift. This is what we built Just3Things to help you accomplish.
You can’t control the unfolding changes in our world, and you can’t predict the future. Let’s focus on what we can control by making work more meaningful and valuable. Keep it simple, start small, and empower your teams to make a real impact.