Innovating your business for agility post the Covid-19 pandemic

Innovating your business for agility post the Covid-19 pandemic: Reflections by our Dean of Innovation and Technology, and Head Adjudicator of the tt100 Business Awards, Dr. Dzingai Katsamba.


The Covid-19 pandemic has left many companies seeking to adopt new ways of working at speed. Executives are also interested in transforming to flatter, non-hierarchical structures, assuming more radical approaches to decision making and ways of executing work. The old norm of waiting around for best practices to emerge can no longer yield any results. Business leaders recognise the compelling need to shift from adrenaline-based speed during COVID-19 to speed by design and for long-term survival. The real winners are now experimenting boldly. Outlined below are eight actions to unleash sustainable speed through organisational innovation.

Delegate decision making with agility

The pandemic has demonstrated that it is possible to make decisions faster without destroying the business. This, therefore, compels leaders to assume a practice where fewer meetings and fewer decision-makers in each meeting is the new modus oparandi. Some organisations are taking to heart the “nine on a video-conference” principle. On the other hand, some companies are keeping larger 30 to 40 person meetings (so the people that need to implement the decisions are present) but cutting the number of people with a vote. Preparation for each meeting has become less detailed, with one-to-two-page documents or spreadsheets replacing lengthy PowerPoint decks.

The pandemic has also procreated an increase in the cadence of decisions, taking on the mantra that “quarterly is the new annual.” Holding just-in-time, fit-for-purpose planning and resource allocation on a quarterly instead of annual basis is not only faster but also makes the organisation more flexible.

Amplify execution excellence

The mere fact that times are bad does not mean that leaders need to tighten control and micromanage execution. Rather, it is the opposite. Due to the fact that conditions are so difficult, frontline employees need to take on more responsibility for execution, action, collaboration, and cooperative engagements.

In most organisations, this isn’t always easy and requires that organisations focus on building execution muscle throughout the workforce. Leaders must learn to assign responsibility to the line, and drive “closed-loop accountability.” This means that everyone working on a team must be clear about what needs to get done, and by whom, when, and why. Other team players must also be equipped with the right skills and mindsets to solve problems, instead of waiting to be told what to do. Moreover, there must be a disciplined follow-up to make sure actions were taken and the desired results achieved.

Leaders who are serious about execution excellence are investing in helping their workforce up their execution game — through targeted programmes, realigning incentives, and directing rewards and recognition to teams that execute with speed and excellence.

Establishing strong partnerships

The idea of partners has been a routine. However, the speed of action only goes so far if other players in the ecosystem fail to move just as fast. During the pandemic, we have seen companies work with partners in new ways to achieve extraordinary impact. Partners are increasingly becoming more important in dealing with the pace of change, complexity, and disruptions that are becoming the norm.

The rate of technological and business-model innovation alone makes it nearly impossible for any single organisation to do everything on their own. The connected world is breaking down the traditional boundaries between buyers and suppliers, manufacturers and distributors, employers and employees.

To make partnerships a success, the relationship must be built on deep trust by adopting a more open-source approach to innovation, and by embedding the partner into everything from strategy-setting to routine operations. Trust will ensure that parties integrate their systems and processes, enabling them to find solutions, make decisions quickly, and execute efficiently

Establish a flat structure 

An agile and aligned organisation has more people taking action and fewer people feeding the beast of bureaucracy – briefing each other, reporting, seeking approvals, sitting in unproductive meetings. Rigid hierarchies must be transformed into leaner, flatter structures that allow for companies to respond quickly to emerging challenges and opportunities. The company should make use of fewer middle managers and span-breakers and add more doers and deciders. To create such an ecosystem requires reimagining structure, and not a hierarchy of bosses, per the traditional organisational chart, but rather a versatile team.

In the new norm, real-time collaboration and collocation have become important and have even extended to the virtual world. A classic example is putting engineering and product-development specialists on the same team, which can speed up innovation and boost output.  Most companies have made central functions more capable platforms, deploying skills, tools, and talent where they are needed most, while also acting as a catalyst for learning and best-practice sharing.

Aligned leaders have established centres of excellence, with the goal of bringing leading-edge capabilities — such as analytics and artificial intelligence, digitisation, and process automation, and Industry 4.0 — to a broad range of performance units and, thus, delivering measurable value.

Unleash empowered and nimble teams

The pandemic has seen the large-scale deployment of fast, agile teams — characterised by small, focused cross-functional teams working together toward a common set of objectives that are tracked and measured. Leaders have made this work by charging each team with a specific mission: an outcome that matters for customers or employees, empowering each team to find its own approach, and then getting out of the way.

Having one fast, agile team is helpful, but having many of them across an enterprise, and enabling them with the right structures, processes, and culture, makes it possible for the entire system to move faster.

Make hybrid execution, work

The next normal will see, significantly, more people working in a hybrid way — sometimes in person with colleagues on-site, and sometimes working remotely. This model can unlock significant value, including more satisfied employees and lower real estate costs. Some other benefits to a hybrid working model, include access to a broader range of talent, greater flexibility, and improved productivity.

In order to achieve these gains, employers need to ensure that the basics are in place to digitally enable remote working and collaboration, while taking care to create working norms that foster social cohesion. They should precisely define the optimal approach for each role and employee segment. That requires understanding when on-site work is better compared with remote interaction or independent work. Perhaps more important, hybrid organisations must adopt new ways of working that may help build a strong culture, cohesion, and trust even when many employees are working remotely.

The next three actions aim to innovate talent in order to get tomorrow’s leadership team operational today, and to build the workforce capabilities of the future.

Create tomorrow’s leaders today

One of the unexpected consequences of the pandemic is that leaders have seen into a window that shows who their future leaders are. They have seen who can make decisions and execute rapidly; who is able to take on new challenges and lead in the face of uncertainty and who has the grit to persevere.

In many cases leaders have found emerging talent two-to-three layers down, people who rose to the occasion and helped lead crisis-response and plan-ahead strategies. In most cases, they have found that some leaders have become too comfortable with the slower-moving bureaucracy of the past. Not only have leaders gained insight into who the future leaders are, but they have also seen the value of rapidly deploying top talent to the most important work. Organisations that do both things — find future leaders and redeploy talent skilfully — will be able to move faster.

Develop the ability to learn

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated that it is not the strong or the rich companies that will survive, but those with the ability to learn and learn fast. Learning and adaptability have been on the leaders’ agenda for some time, but even more so during the pandemic. In the last few months, some of the best leadership teams have been on a steep learning curve: learning how to lead in a time of crisis, learning to manage rapidly forming agile teams, making decisions at a much faster pace, and learning to adapt.

Forward-thinking companies are now accelerating their capability-building efforts by developing leadership and critical thinking skills at different levels of the organisation, increasing their employees’ capacity to engage with technology and use advanced analytics, and building functional skills for the future, such as next-generation procurement, Industry 4.0 manufacturing, and digital marketing and sales.

Whether the pandemic ends now or in the near future, its impact has been felt by every organisation globally, and those organisations that have adopted the above eight innovative interventions will see the future. Those leaders who have ignored such interventions will sadly preside over the disappearance of their organisations to oblivion.