4 ways to turn uncertainty to your advantage

Opportunity abounds in hard times, if you’re prepared to take it.

by Panos Kakoullis and Jo Scarlett
Last Updated: 13 May 2020
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Food for thought

If there’s one thing businesses fear, it’s uncertainty. And the crisis caused by COVID-19 means they’re facing nothing but. The immediate upheaval of lockdown without a defined endpoint and the prospect of recession to follow make this the biggest challenge for a generation. 

With confidence hobbled, businesses might be tempted to sit tight, ride out the pandemic and focus on keeping day-to-day operations ticking over. Yet a crisis is exactly the moment to tap into the hidden superpower of ingenuity.

This might sound glib when, for many, the choices are suddenly not about which opportunity to invest in but how to keep and protect staff. 

Nevertheless, this is when businesses most need to try something different. 

History lessons

In this crisis, we’ve already seen inspiring examples. Dior and Louis Vuitton parent LVMH, and brewers BrewDog and Anheuser-Busch have rapidly adapting to produce hand sanitiser. Restaurant chain Leon has turned its 65 restaurants into shops selling ready-meals and ingredients by click-and-collect and home delivery. 

These are but two examples of the ingenious ways organisations are centring on their customers, simplifying their internal structures to speed up their innovation processes, and empowering their people to find creative approaches to doing new things quickly. At PA, we’ve been inspired by helping UK manufacturers and Formula 1 teams produce ventilators for the National Health Service. 

Yet ingenuity isn’t just for lockdown. Ingenuity is the mindset that will position you to recover quickly once it eases. It’s worth remembering that big ideas are often born in bad times: Uber and Instagram were founded in the recession after the 2008 financial crisis, the iPod and MTV both appeared in earlier downturns, while Virgin Atlantic launched its Upper Class offering in the travel slump that followed 9/11.

Not every idea is as big as those. But ingenuity comes in many valuable forms. It’s an innate human trait that can be the key to your organisation’s future – if you let it. Here are four lessons we’ve learned. 

1. Encourage the optimism that sustains creativity 

Balance honesty about the short-term situation with positivity about the long term. Give your team permission to innovate and experiment around the task you’re trying to deliver, and use workspaces and technology to encourage collaboration. Also, let them know your culture prizes their ideas, if anything, more than ever. In the process, you’ll reconnect your business with its purpose and deepen your people’s commitment and loyalty. 

2. Empower your teams to innovate

Most ideas don’t come from individuals’ lightbulb moments but teamwork, especially from diverse teams. Traditionally, silos like research, product development, design and technology work on projects in sequence. But that’s slow and expensive.

Instead, group together the skills it takes to work out what customers need, and how to make it technologically and financially feasible. Then iterate and test ideas quickly. And dedicate the team to that innovation, not to their departmental goals. 

For a large medical diagnostics business, this meant pulling finance managers into research teams to drive faster product development and build more valuable customer solutions. Meanwhile, by empowering its teams, Danish energy company Ørsted went from generating 20 percent of its output from renewables to 86 percent from wind power. 

Multi-disciplinary thinking from data and infrastructure architects, test engineers and cyber security specialists powered this stunning transformation. These teams made the most of digital capabilities like artificial intelligence and advanced analytics to predict weather and customer usage patterns, which helped Ørsted reduce the cost of operations and increase yield. 

3. Build an evolving organisation capable of transforming uncertainty into advantage, fast

Simplify the business now, to make adapting to change easier and faster. Put decisions in the hands of teams built around what matters most to customers – products, services or experiences – and give them clear accountability to balance customer satisfaction and business performance. 

Online retailer Zappos famously prides itself on its innovative customer service, which stems in part from letting staff deal with customer feedback themselves. By eliminating multiple process layers, the company delivers a more personal service and saves staff time. Zappos continuously scores highly on customer satisfaction surveys. 

4. Look for inspiration in surprising places

It could be from your networks, collaborating with start-ups to quickly pilot and launch ideas, or sharing insights and resources with peers or organisations outside your ecosystem, like education and academia. Even the natural world can provide the spark. 

The non-reflective properties of moth eyes were crucial to the microstructure technology PA pioneered for the world’s first three-minute home pregnancy test. By letting the outside in, you’ll always be open to discovery.

Looking to the future 

The graver the threat, the more ingenuity matters. The businesses that do best will be open to the unusual and the unlikely, and ready to join apparently unpromising dots.

This matters not just amid crisis but in recovery and afterwards. The discontinuity we are experiencing offers tremendous opportunities. As some parts of the world and business community turn inwards and feed off their survival instincts, we believe it’s by unlocking ingenuity – ingenuity that already exists inside our teams and our organisations – that we can build a more positive human future.  

Panos Kakoullis is CEO-Elect at PA Consulting and Jo Scarlett is Chief Marketing Officer at PA Consulting

Image credit: John Rogers/Getty Images

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