As teams have struggled to adapt to new conditions in the wake of the pandemic, many have devised new, exciting and highly productive ways to communicate with each other and do their jobs. The best teams have transformed the way they work through what we call “radical adaptability”. These are teams that have gone beyond simply managing the crisis as an adaptive response. They have taken advantage of the crisis to reassess and reinvent their work processes so that they can continue to adapt to unpredictable changes in the years to come. This article discusses four essential ways to build radically adaptable teams in our new world of work: collaboration, agility, resilience, and foresight. The radically adaptive response involves fundamental changes in how the organization manages its workforce, develops new business models, and executes its organizational purpose.
When are we going back to the office?
Remember March 2020 when most of us expected it to be two or three months away? Then summer gave way to fall and winter. Some aim to return in mid-2021. That thought is just a distant memory.
As the global pandemic enters its third year, it is high time to recognize that we will never go back to the way we were. We have entered a whole new world of work.
The Covid-19 pandemic has killed millions of people around the world and caused untold suffering and trauma to many millions more in terms of financial loss, lingering illness and agonizing grief. And, as with all crises, the pandemic has also brought out the best in many people. As teams within organizations have struggled to adapt to their new conditions, many have devised new, exciting and highly productive ways to interact with each other and do their jobs. What can we learn from the breakthroughs the pandemic has inspired?
As we detail in our book To be competitive in the new world of work, there is a consistent pattern of leadership skills that have proven most effective in these turbulent times. Through our research involving interviews with over 2,000 enterprise team leaders, we have found that the best results have been achieved by teams that have done more than just adapt to their changing conditions. The best teams have transformed the way they work through what we call “radical adaptability”. These are teams that have gone beyond simple crisis management. They have taken advantage of the crisis to reassess and reinvent their work processes so that they can continue to adapt to unpredictable changes in the years to come. Here are four essential ways to build radically adaptable teams in our new world of work:
1. Collaborate through inclusion
During the pandemic, teams have been forced to break down organizational silos and find innovative solutions wherever they can, within the organization or beyond. We call this process “teaming up,” which redefines team membership to include anyone who might be critical to achieving the team’s mission.
Top teams have embraced the richness of diversity and inclusion offered by virtual, remote and hybrid teamwork. They have developed new work habits and new processes to make the most of these opportunities. Some organizations have started exploring how online inclusion and collaboration could fuel innovation at scale. Global companies such as Google, AT&T, and Deutsche Telekom have begun using their employee networks to gather ideas for product innovation and policy development. The Dow Chemical Company, in particular, has begun using digital virtual tools to collaborate with small customers who previously had no direct communication with the company. A bold new approach to external partnerships, focused on distance, helped make 2020 a year of innovation and transformation for Dow, as it generated 80% more leads than in its all-time best years. “It gives us the opportunity to do things better than we’ve done in the past, and it overcomes some of the limitations of doing things in person,” Dan Futter, chief commercial officer of Dow, told us. “We’re only scratching the surface of where this can take us.”
2. Lead through agile management
Our research showed how companies as diverse as Delta Air Lines, General Motors and Unilever, disrupted by the pandemic, used the principles of agile management to launch new product lines and processes in weeks, instead of months or of years. Delta soon launched an all-new global cleanliness division, General Motors took just a month to retool its factory lines to start manufacturing respiratory ventilators, and Unilever, which had no sanitizer for hands in the US market, developed and began shipping the new product to stores in six weeks.
By operating in a kind of “crisis-agile” mode, they gave agile, self-organizing teams the freedom to quickly test ideas and iterate on solutions without going up the chain of command for approvals. They produced extraordinary results in record time. Now the challenge is how to learn from the “crisis agile” experience and integrate sustainable agile practices into daily work.
Agile teams with a clear mission and adequate resources are able to self-organize and self-manage. Teams decide what approaches, people, and resources will be needed to achieve their goals, and team behavior evolves from authority-centric norms to customer-centric cultures. Responsibility goes from each member to the team, and from the team to each member.
Target, 3M, Dell and other companies already had well-developed teams teaching and executing agile methods before the pandemic. Target has an agile learning center called the Target Dojo, where employees are expected to spend nearly a fifth of their time learning new skills centered around agility. This level of agile culture support gave Target a significant competitive advantage in dealing with the disruptions and unpredictable changes that occurred in the first year of the pandemic.
3. Promote team resilience
Resilience, defined as the ability to bounce back from adversity, was normally seen as a personal matter – the responsibility of each member of the team. The pandemic has highlighted the vital importance of share responsibility. In high-performing teams, leaders promote the idea that everyone is responsible and accountable for each other’s health and well-being. When the focus is on team resilience and when team members take responsibility for one another, the team as a unit can maintain its emotional and physical energies, even when members Individuals encounter difficulties. This is why some super resilient teams have exceeded expectations to bounce back from the many adversities of the pandemic. These teams actually bounced back cheeky.
We have determined a set of team behaviors that are the most reliable diagnostic indicators of team resilience – psychological safety, positive intention, quick and frequent check-ins, generosity, gratitude, and empathy among them. Teams that emphasize the importance of everyone being able to articulate their needs and challenges are able to solve problems more quickly and collaboratively, and move faster to bolder actions. Remote and hybrid teamwork requires an extra level of mindfulness in this regard. Leaders of remote and hybrid teams need to be much more aware and deliberate about recording and positive reinforcement – leadership practices that may have been done more casually in person in the past.
4. Develop active foresight
Why have so many businesses been completely caught off guard by the pandemic? In 2006, harvard business review ran an entire special section called Prepare for a pandemic. Bill Gates predicted in 2015 that “germs not missiles” were more likely to kill 10 million people in the coming decades. The risk of a pandemic disrupting business operations worldwide was well understood but almost universally ignored. To paraphrase Peter Drucker’s axiom about predicting the future, the threat was “visible but not yet seen”.
How many other threats – and opportunities – are on your horizon? What future possibilities are currently “visible but not yet seen”? Business foresight, which is usually a practice confined to strategic planning exercises, is something that every organization should incorporate into regular operations. Each team is able to develop simple processes and monthly reviews that allow them to see around the corners. Teams can use the data and industry insights they accumulate daily to collaborate on solutions and design actionable scenarios that will help them mitigate risk and exploit new opportunities.
Moving forward as an organization.
These four practices of collaboration, agility, resilience, and foresight can create a state of circular flow in which teams can operate at peak performance. The essence of radical adaptability is that it is predictive and proactive, unlike typical adaptive responses to change, which tend to be reactive and conformist. At the organizational level, the radically adaptive response to change involves fundamental changes in how the organization manages its workforce, develops new business models, and executes its organizational purpose.