It’s often said that the only constant in life is change, and for the past couple of years, that’s certainly been true in the business world. Covid-19 has been an ever-present source of uncertainty, sparking unprecedented supply-chain challenges and driving down investment and consumer confidence. Amongst other adaptations, this sparked a huge acceleration in digital transformation, along with a total rearrangement of working models. As the impact of this is still being felt and many post-pandemic transformation efforts are still underway, organisations are now also grappling with the economic uncertainty of rising interest rates and talk of a recession. All of this raises the question: how can significant business change be achieved when potential crisis is on the horizon? In this thought leadership piece, we’ll be exploring why transformation in times of uncertainty is so tricky, along with some of the ways it can be managed.
What makes change management in uncertain times so difficult?
Traditional transformation management involves a heavy focus on a carefully planned and systematic rollout timeline, but in times of uncertainty, time is often limited, and the focus may constantly be shifting. This places an emphasis on the ability to pivot quickly to meet the demands of a situation that may be unpredictable, and requires greater agility in swiftly assessing all possible outcomes in order to react accordingly.
Managing transformation in times of crisis and change
Transformation is essential in allowing organisations to compete more effectively, make improvements to efficiency, and adapt to an evolving marketplace. In times of uncertainty, these efforts take on a new importance as organisations attempt to make necessary improvements whilst also preventing and mitigating damage. The following tips may help businesses rise to this difficult, yet do-able, challenge.
More often than not, the initial instinct of change management professionals and senior leaders is to think long-term. Ordinarily, this makes sense; the further ahead you plan, the better prepared you are to address obstacles. However, in times of uncertainty when unpredictability and change are rife, adopting a short-term policy that factors in contingency planning is a smart move. Sometimes the best laid plans fall at the final hurdle, so consistently re-evaluating processes can facilitate greater success and aid agility. For example, you might devise a 30, 60 and 90-day plan, making note of milestones along the way during which you know you might have to take a step back and reassess. Of course, this may well require seeking feedback more frequently and holding more meetings as strategies evolve, but your organisation will thank you in the long run when all contingency plans are prepared ahead of time.
Focus on quick wins
When businesses devise a transformation roadmap, they may well choose to organise initiatives into a series of themed “sprints” – time-bound planning and implementation efforts aligned with their priorities. Often, the first sprint will focus on initiatives meant to have an impact in the first year – the low-hanging fruit. Subsequent sprints, in contrast, will address long-term or complex initiatives, such as those requiring more capital or up-front testing, and are therefore more likely to be subject to re-thinks during times of uncertainty. In contrast, quick wins can put points on the board and inspire the organisation to attain the full potential of the remainder of the transformation, whilst reducing the chance that progress will stall in the face of more complex challenges on the road ahead.
Set direction, and communicate
Leaders should commit to the ‘when’ and ‘what’ of the aspiration for change, based on a realistic view of the organisation’s position. When communicating with key stakeholders, a tone of deliberate calm can help build trust, and facilitate positive communication. During times of crisis such as recession, it’s only natural that people will be feeling anxious. It therefore also helps to have a comprehensive plan in place as to how any potential changes in organisational structure will be communicated, and to keep that communication thorough, consistent, and reassuring. This will likely mean consistent engagement with middle management as well as HR, to ensure the entire organisation is aligned on the roadmap ahead.
A holistic approach to talent is critical to any transformation effort, even during times of change. Just consider the impact of the pandemic, which led not only to the Great Resignation, but a rearrangement of workforce practices and employee expectations. Companies that stayed tuned into what their team needed and valued most are the ones that ended up winning the talent war, and those that didn’t lost out. Even during a downturn, companies shouldn’t stop investing in the future, and in people who can help them to outperform competitors. By actively listening to the needs of employees, enlisting new talent where required and remaining focused on training and development, organisations can fulfil their strategic agendas more efficiently and rapidly.
A higher cost of capital and increasing interest rates are becoming less of an uncertainty and more of a factor set to stick around for a while. While unpleasant and painful, this means companies are able to draw on a proven playbook for success in a world of slower growth. This might involve analysing costs and identifying key assets to protect, or making moves to increase cash flow and explore which types of investments will offer the highest returns. Alternatively, businesses might consider investing in cost-saving technologies ahead of time, or considering potential merger and acquisitions opportunities. It’s true that you might feel like you’re overreacting, but waiting until issues reach a crisis point is sure to be a mistake. Plus, moves such as these can always be factored into contingency plans, and having the necessary planning and strategies in place will facilitate swift action.
Transformation should always be human-centric, often known as the ‘head, heart, and hands of transformation.’ In times of flux, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the fact that at their core, all organisations are driven by people – employees, clients, partners, and others that enable the business to thrive in less uncertain times. As transformation continues in the midst of economic stress, departments may well need to be restructured if no other course of action is available, but by working closely with management at all levels to ensure empathy is demonstrated at every stage of the journey, people can still feel heard, valued, and appreciated. The way a company treats people will be remembered long after a crisis is forgotten.
Ultimately, managing transformation during times of uncertainty is complex. However, the pandemic has aptly demonstrated that crises can be weathered, and can even be the catalyst for positive long-term change. By setting clear direction, staying agile, celebrating quick wins and putting people first, businesses can emerge even stronger on the other side.
GRG Executive Search is able to provide the transformation talent you require to guide your business through times of uncertainty. For a confidential discussion about how we can help, contact our associate director and specialist in transformation talent Hayley Smith on firstname.lastname@example.org.