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February, 21, 2022  |  Mike Rowlands  |    |  

Agility Revisited: Lessons from the COVID Pandemic.

As we approach the second anniversary of the COVID pandemic, we thought it timely to revisit the theme of Agility—and explore what we’ve learned since our last post on the topic.

Mike Rowlands
President and CEO at Junxion. Mike has guided strategy development with early-stage ventures, decades-old corporations, not-for-profits and charities, and government agencies. Reach Mike via [email protected].

A couple of years ago, we wrote a series of blog posts about the approach we use to guide strategy in corporations, social ventures, and non-profits—at all points of scale. One of the posts was about how organizations should respond when their operating context shifts—aka agility. As we approach the second anniversary of the COVID pandemic, we thought it timely to revisit that theme—and explore what we’ve learned.

Of course, when talk turns to ‘agility,’ we often think about ‘speed.’ And our ability to respond quickly to the volatility of the past two years has been imperative for those who have come through relatively unscathed.

My friends Denise Taschereau and Sarah White co-founded and together run Fairware, a sustainable promotional merchandise company. Denise described their early decisions in the pandemic pretty directly: “We contracted our team by half within six weeks of lock down. It was an excruciating decision, but we’re glad we did.” Sarah completed the thought: “It helped us survive.”

In the following months, Fairware benefited from the work they’d done to prepare for such a downturn—a lesson hard-learned in the 2008 crisis. Just as their supply chains were getting constrained, Fairware was able “to pivot to trusted partners in other regions when parts of the US and Canada were in lock down.”

As their downsized business continued, they also “took the opportunity to revisit how [their] company [is] structured, from workflow to sales compensation, and [to make] significant changes before we rebuilt the team.” Fairware will come out of the pandemic successfully. In fact, they’ll probably be a stronger company for the trials of the past two years.

Today, we stand (we hope) near the end of the global pandemic that has shifted the context dramatically for people, families, communities, companies, and non-profits everywhere. It’s been a terrible and trying time, for so many reasons.

Yet some organizations have navigated it relatively unscathed. Still others have found ways to thrive. How? What is it that their leadership did differently that ensured they found success while others were lost? 

How did some
companies thrive
during the pandemic?

What assets did they have that their competitors lacked?

Strong, stable, resilient businesses that successfully navigate significant challenges tend to have a few things in common. A strong balance sheet certainly helps. Leadership that’s ready and able to make courageous decisions. And healthy, cohesive organizational cultures.

Winners Remained Agile….

The companies that have proven most resilient—the ones who have navigated this unprecedented string of challenges most successfully—are the ones that have remained agile.

Caroline Bonesky, CEO of the employee-owned, B Corp certified, social services company WJS Canada, captured their company’s responsiveness succinctly: “I think a lot of our planning had a six month window as we thought it would be over in 6 months, or a year, or 18 months….” WJS’s ability to remain resilient and agile delivered them through the pandemic intact and stronger.

Five Insights of Agile Companies

Here are five imperative practices we’ve learned (or confirmed) during the pandemic that will continue to serve you and your organization as we move to endemic and beyond….

Empathy & Communication: We all have hardship stories of the rapid shift to working from home. Managing to do lists and toddlers simultaneously; couples working across from one another at kitchen tables in small apartments; insufficient broadband…. The list goes on interminably. The organizations that made swift, successful transitions met these challenges with patience and empathy, and stayed in close communication with their teams.

Caroline Bonesky “set the tone for how WJS was going to work through the changing parameters with calmness and thoughtfulness.”

Winners put
people first.

Despite all the changes, WJS leadership assured staff “we were keeping their and clients’ safety at the top of the list. We never waivered or really relaxed any precautions.”

Equip People to Succeed: Oliver Foeste, Managing Partner of high growth, specialty advisors Invictus Accounting, emphasized the importance of equipping his team to be successful in the changed work environment: “We ensured staff had all equipment at their home office including dual monitors and arms, and ordering new equipment for home offices.”

One key piece of equipment: the Bose 700 headsets that are now part of Invictus’s core office setup. Their noise-canceling microphones are “a big win for both remote work and for return to office. You can have major background noise (family, dogs, construction, other staff) and practically nothing is picked-up.”

Bolster Liquidity: ‘Cash is king’ at the best of times, but during a crisis, liquidity is vital. Invictus shortened their accounts receivable and collection cycle. “Practically, this meant billing immediately after month ends and more frequent, friendly follow ups,” explained Oliver. A reminder of the fundamentals is always valuable.

Seize Emergent Opportunities: With a healthy balance sheet and dedicated attention to cash flow, it’s easier to respond when opportunity knocks. Recognizing the challenges that were coming to their whole business model, MacKay CEO Forums made the quick decision to retain a fractional CTO, to help adopt Zoom as their virtual platform. While a great many organizations adopted Zoom, shifting their CEO peer circle model online was a big shift for MacKay… and they were just getting started.

Founder Nancy MacKay, PhD explained that she and her colleagues “focused on innovation by launching our new 90-day virtual CEO peer group offering around the world.”

Winners focus on relevant innovation.

They also “offered virtual, timely, relevant, educational content through interactive Zoom sessions on a weekly basis to help our members navigate the pandemic.” These were exceptional extensions to MacKay CEO Forums’ core model at a moment when there was “unprecedented demand for peer support around the world.”

At Invictus, Oliver explained that, “increased demands over the last couple years meant we gratefully grew the firm and hired some fantastic people. We made some hiring mistakes during this time and used that experience to dramatically improve our previously ad hoc hiring process. Better practices are now streamlining Invictus’s ongoing, rapid growth.

Focus on Culture: At Junxion, our team has been split between Vancouver, Canada and London, UK since 2009—so we already understood how to work remotely. For many organizations, though, work from home threatened to break their organizational culture. (We wonder to what degree cultural erosion in organizations is contributing to the ‘Great Resignation.’)

Invictus “implemented new teamwork and virtual communication approaches that were previously less important.” They also hired a new Manager of People & Culture to support this process and keep the workplace fun (and pandemic-compliant).

WJS “continually recognized the struggle and impact and tried to offer different kinds of recognition along the way for staff… gift baskets, gift cards, T shirts, back packs etc.”

Winners recognize

They also worked tirelessly to ensure supports for frontline staff were consistent throughout the pandemic. 

In fact, when we asked Caroline what she might do differently, if she had the past two years to do over again, her response went straight to well-being: “We are basically essential services and so much of the impact of the pandemic was on both the personal and employment side.” The one addition she would make? “A more structured approach to enhanced mental health supports.”

One more thing: unlike many of their peer organizations, WJS kept their support and administrative staff coming to the office. Said Caroline, “I believe that created a sense of ‘solidarity’ with staff.”

Agility isn’t just about work ‘sprints’ and responsiveness. It’s about resilience, capacity, opportunities, and recognition. Interestingly, traits of next economy businesses.

Perhaps you’re ready to explore how you can build a more agile company and culture, if so then get in touch.

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