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Unleashing sustainable speed in a post-COVID world: Rethink ways of working

This is the first blog post of a three-part series that reviews the nine actions to unleash sustainable speed. Read the second post here and the third post here.
Aaron De Smet

Delivers growth, innovation, and organizational agility and is an expert on culture change, leadership development, team effectiveness, capability building, and transformation

Elizabeth Mygatt

Advises clients across a variety of sectors on topics regarding organizational transformation with expertise in organizational design, governance and decision rights, leadership, and change management.

As global leader of McKinsey Accelerate, Daniel supports leading organizations in sustaining transformational impact through capability building, execution excellence and leadership development. He advises companies in the aerospace, defense, industrial, and technology sectors, especially in using digital and analytics to achieve sustainable growth and operational excellence

Charlotte Relyea

Works closely with clients to build organizational capabilities to sustain long-term growth.

Helping clients transform through technology, innovation, and agility

The pandemic has forced many businesses to navigate crisis conditions in new and unprecedented ways. When COVID-19 erupted, many companies realized that business-as-usual approaches to serving customers, working with suppliers and collaborating with colleagues—or just getting anything done—would no longer work. They were forced to increase the speed at which they did everything, from decision-making and productivity to utilizing technology in new ways to accelerating innovation. The result? Organizations across a wide range of sectors achieved positive results in record time:

  • A U.S.-based retailer launched curbside delivery in two days versus the previously planned 18 months.
  • An engineering company designed and manufactured ventilators in one week.
  • An industrial factory ran at 90%+ capacity with 40% of the workforce.

At the heart of these examples is speed. For seemingly better, the pandemic has forced organizations to remove the typical boundaries and silos and streamline decisions and processes. Leadership teams have embraced technology and data, reinventing core processes and adopting new collaboration tools. The lesson learned from this forced acceleration is that organizations can make massive and fundamental shifts when needed and—given the positive outcomes—should never go back to the old ways of working.

As companies adopt new ways of working at speed, executives are also interested in moving to flatter, nonhierarchical structures and taking more radical approaches to decision-making and ways of working. The winners are experimenting now, and boldly. In this blog post—the first of a three-part series—we review the first three of nine actions to unleash sustainable speed, which aim to rethink ways of working:

  1. Speed up and delegate decision-making: The pandemic has shown that it is possible to make decisions faster without breaking the business. In practice, this means fewer meetings and fewer decision-makers in each meeting. Some organizations are taking to heart the “nine on a videoconference” principle, while others are keeping larger meetings but cutting the number of people with a vote. There is less detailed preparation for meetings, with one- or two-page documents replacing lengthy PowerPoint decks.

    There is also a focus on increasing the cadence of decisions and holding just-in-time, fit-for-purpose planning and resource allocation on a quarterly—not annual—basis. And finally, non-mission-critical decisions can be delegated, so that top leaders can focus on fewer, more important decisions; think “assign the line” rather than “go to the top.” This means tolerating mistakes that don’t pose a significant risk and understanding that a slow decision can often be worse than an imperfect one.

  2. Step up execution excellence: Rather than tighten control or micromanage execution, leaders must assign responsibility to the line and drive “closed-loop accountability.” Everyone working on a team must be clear about what needs to get done and by whom, when and why.

    Leaders who are serious about execution excellence are investing in helping their workforces up their execution game, through targeted programs and realigning incentives, rewards and recognition. This focus on execution can help discover powerful ideas and innovation from frontline teams that are closest to the customer and can drive excitement and loyalty among the employee base.

  3. Cultivate extraordinary partnerships: Working with partners is routine, but 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.

    For example, a South Carolina-based healthcare organization had a design for an emergency ventilator-expansion device but lacked the capacity to build and distribute as many as were needed. The company partnered with a multinational corporation that develops medical devices, among other goods, and together were able to manufacture the devices at scale—the FDA even gave it an emergency-use authorization

In our second blog post, we review the next three actions (aimed to reimagine structure) that can help organizations unleash sustainable speed.

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