Learning from the present to help guide the future
Loughlin Hickey, Trustee, A Blueprint for Better Business
There are many stories of how businesses are reacting to the current human crisis and its attendant economic consequences. The heartening stories are those where business have managed to put people at the heart of their survival and renewal thinking. Some of those businesses went into the crisis with a clarity around their purpose and beliefs and this has helped them navigate a course in these stormy waters; others have uncovered a sense of purpose that was latent but not explicit.
If the best of behaviours from this time of business unusual can be retained, and made the norm of expectations as the world returns to a new business as usual – it will be a real opportunity to move from purpose statements to purpose led decision making. This requires a mindset that fits what we have learnt in the crisis into how we know how to run businesses. Connecting the humanity and management that this crisis has revealed, with the reality of the world we need to face. How businesses have operated during the crisis will create the boundaries to operate after the crisis. If a business has damaged its standing it will need to spend time rebuilding. If a business has enhanced its standing, it will have greater permission to operate. But, if a business learns and builds in good practices now, it will be able to use and sustain that greater permission and goodwill to succeed.
What does this mean in practice?
- Purpose – Ask yourself if your stated purpose is what has guided your best actions during the crisis? If not what was missing? How does this change your articulation of purpose, what it means and how it guides the right actions and behaviours. If you don’t have a purpose use the examples of the business acting at its best, and who the business prioritised, as a guide to making your purpose explicit. Then communicate through that purpose how you want your business to show up in the world, make decisions, how you affect others and are perceived by those it impacts. An explicit purpose that guides decisions and priorities.
- Relationships – Think about the support you have given to the relationships in your value chain – customers, employees, suppliers, community, lenders, investors. All are important in terms of respect but they are not equal in terms of dependency. Where do you wish you had spent more time in building a relationship before the crisis rather than having a transactional discourse. What can you do now to build up those relationships – for example asking them how they are doing and is there anything practical you can do to help? Which relationships are the ones you depend on? Engage them now in a discussion in how you build back better together. Think now how your future governance structure will change to give a voice to those relationships of interdependence, for example on board committees or advisory groups.
- Partnerships – Who have you partnered with to get help to people or to scale impact – for example for employee well-being or reach into the community, collaboration with government or local authority. What sector/cross business relationships made a difference? What will you do to reinforce that partnership building capacity post crisis to be more effective and at speed and scale, for example appoint someone to build on the partnerships or jointly sponsor a coordinator.
- Strategy – How does your strategy reflect your learning about the needs of key relationships? Does it change the products and services you provide, the way you invest in relationships and how you can scale impact and reach through partnerships? How does it deal with the big interdependent issues of the day that business can help solve – inequality of opportunity, a suffering planet and its bio-diversity that hurts us as we hurt it? Update your strategy to become a near / medium term vision of what your purpose would look like in practice – capability enhanced or built and interim goals achieved.
- Capability – What capabilities did you discover could be re-purposed to help in the crisis, for example, to help the community around you? Ask yourselves about how your core capabilities define what is expected of you by others, for example, manufacturing, design, logistics, organisational skills and financial skills. And , more importantly what outcomes does this help achieve, for example reliable, recyclable goods that meet real needs, design that makes goods easy to use and repairable, ability to plan finances and access finance. Finally, is that reflected in your purpose and so makes it authentic? What unexpected capabilities emerged, for example in setting up remote working, making quicker decisions, generating ideas and acting on instinct, using knowledge in the front line and encouraging people to use their initiative? How can this lead to a different way of working and sharing capabilities with others? How can you continue to engage community or supply chain so that they can work better with you and so that you can make best use of the capabilities you have developed and discovered? What capabilities were missing and how can they be built? A clarity about the capabilities that make the purpose and strategy stretching but credible.
- Working methods – How can you re-design your work processes and structures to get back to work as soon as possible with proper regard to health and well-being? Can you experiment now and learn about a mixture of physical and remote presence and healthy work procedures that allows a physical space to open, to allow some sense of place and physical team when guidelines allow. What implications does this have for longer term work patterns – not least in attending to the well-being and the diverse needs of the workforce who will be in different stages of being able to return to work? What have you realised that you didn’t know about the different circumstances of your workforce and their non-work commitments, what made their work meaningful or meaningless when working remotely, and the relative value of pay, security of work and flexibility? How can this inform your picture of your business as a microcosm of society and how you change your working environment and your processes to match that new understanding? Can you be clearer about how people, what they care about and their role contribute to holding the business true to purpose? Processes that promote well-being, autonomy, a pathway to contributing to purpose and the tools to contribute.
- Measures and reporting – What have you learned about the information that is important to know and what is just habit? What were the gaps, for example in understanding the needs/fragility of your people or your supply chain? What features of your products and services most valued? Were there barriers to decision making? How do you fill that knowledge gap in the future and how do you eliminate unnecessary reporting/supervision to free up time for important tasks? Has the need to adapt taught you more about what the important outcomes were for people – resilience of supply, decisions being made nearest to the issue e.g. customer need, supplier need, employee uncertainty. What enables that outcome, for example the right sharing of information and decision making authority? How will this change your internal and external metrics and reporting? Would thinking about outcomes lead to better thinking about what inputs and interventions are needed to get the right outcomes? Measures, metrics and reporting to enable people to understand the value chain, their contribution and an invitation to participate.
Thinking about these questions, and acting on the answers, will move learning from today to ways of thinking and doing beyond the crisis.
If you need further stimulus to your thinking and a pathway to a practical mindset that brings humanity into the business system, and uses the lessons of today to plot a better future, look at the thinking behind A Blueprint for Better Business which provokes these questions and a signals a pathway to a better business through contributing to society and the well-being of people and planet.
Blueprint CEO, Charles Wookey’s recent article Being “Purpose-led” is not about avoiding tough decisions explores how being purpose-led can help businesses navigate the acute challenges they face now. And why it should not be misunderstood as just being ‘nice’. I hope you find it helpful and welcome your thoughts.