The Productivity Compass

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How being agile can help save your business

Major crises like our current situation is a real-life test of agility for many of us. As we look around at governments grappling with mitigation and businesses of every size pivoting their strategies, we see all of them dovetail back to this mantra: “Responding to change over following a plan.”  

While everything may feel hopeless at times, there are also inspiring examples of people and organizations who have shown resourcefulness and resiliency in their responses. Now that we’re here, the only way forward is to adapt to our new normal.

Some real-life examples of agility in the face of crisis

In China, a number of restaurants, hotels and cinema chains had to let go a part of their workforce because of a decline in sales. According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, these employees were repurposed by Hema, a new retail supermarket owned by Alibaba for deliveries following the increase in online orders. Following suit, other online-to-offline [O2O] players started borrowing labor from restaurants.

Despite the World Health Organization’s [WHO] statement that travel bans were not necessary, Time Magazine reports that by February 1, 2020, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore had proactively restricted passengers coming from the mainland. It was a bold move, considering that China was their biggest source of trade and tourism. The SARS epidemic in 2003 helped prepare these regions for their next crisis, positioning them to act quickly in a similar situation. In addition to fighting the virus, the Singapore government is currently offering self-employed people $100 Singapore dollars ($73 USD) per day and ensures that employers don’t count quarantine days under their staffers’ annual leave.

In Kerala, when schools and anganwadis (rural child care centers) were shut because of COVID-19, government teachers home-delivered the mid-day meals to the children in their homes. Kerala, a state of 34 million in southern India, is also delivering food to people under observation. Patients in isolation are being provided with food, WiFi, and counseling to get them through these difficult times. Writing for the Huffington Post, Meryl Sebastian reports “the government has been advocating a strong but humane response to containing the virus.”

How can your business be agile during this time? 

Motivate your team with the right vision

A crisis can leave some people paralyzed and some indifferent. Define a vision and a purpose that your organization can get behind.

According to this McKinsey & Company article from 2017, US intelligence agencies in the early 2000s felt “their organizations performed best in the days, weeks, and months after 9/11… Officers on the front lines received new authority to respond to new developments and threats.” A definitive strategy can be the single driving force for an organization and a leader who can communicate their vision well becomes a successful one.

Level your structure

Simplicity is a core tenet of agile culture. Keep your organization’s structure flat, in word and practice. Clarity on your company’s culture, its processes, and everyone’s role in them will increase your employees’ conviction and motivate them. During a crisis, it’s all-hands-on-deck; egos and inhibitions don’t have a place on the front lines.

Encourage them to fail fast

According to several psychological studies, the pain of loss is almost twice as psychologically powerful as the joy of gaining. We are hardwired to be risk-averse. Your teammates worry more about being wrong than getting excited about proposing something new. During a crisis, inaction is in itself a risk. People stick their necks out only when they know it’s not going to be chopped off. Encourage new ideas as much as the failures that are bound to come along with them. A culture that values innovation should also value honest feedback. Use small feedback cycles and constructive criticism to create an environment of self-improvement.

Build autonomous teams

Big organizations are often steeped in hierarchy and layers of bureaucracy. But in times of crisis, you sometimes realize that the force behind many rules is habit, not law. Revisit your policies to enable faster decision-making and transparency within your organization. People can be the biggest assets for an organization. Leverage responsibilities and incentives to make sure your employees feel valued.

A good strategy, a flat hierarchy, a fault-tolerant culture, and motivated individuals are the four legs that an agile organization stands on. They enable each other best only when all of them are present together. Agility is not merely being quick to react to changing conditions—you also have to sustain that state. A crisis, whether it’s a small hiccup in production or a global pandemic like the one we’re currently in, is a perfect litmus test for the resilience of an agile organization. All things, good and bad must come to an end and we’ll weather this storm out together. Until then, stay agile and stay safe.


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