We are living in uncertain times. The only certainty about the COVID-19 pandemic is that it will eventually end, and when it does, many of the changes it has brought will recede. Consumers will once more shop and socialize, supply and demand will rebalance, and markets will recover. History tells us, however, to also expect some lasting change in the wake of the crisis—such as Glass-Steagall after the Great Depression, increased suburbanization after World War II, and heightened security following 9/11. Similarly, in the wake of the turmoil, company performance and position can either shift temporarily, or permanently.
Companies that master both the transitory and the transformational response to a crisis reap long-term rewards. Transitory responses entail rapid actions that are critical for survival, including protecting employees, managing cash, and flexing supply chains to meet demand. But occupying new positions and building new advantages requires transformational moves and investment. In a crisis, when the immediate response can be all-consuming, transformational moves are harder.
How can you be ready for a Post COVID-19 World?
1. Expect change and look ahead: Organizations tend to become myopic and insular when under threat. But crises often mark strategic inflection points, and a focus on the present should not crowd out consideration of the future. The key questions become, what next, and with what consequences and opportunities?
2. Understand broader social shifts: Addressable opportunities are often born out of new customer needs and frustrations, so listening to customers is vital. However, traditional surveys tell you only about existing product and category needs and uses; consumers may not be explicitly aware of their emerging needs. Companies need to look more broadly at how social attitudes are shifting to understand which observed changes in behavior and consumption could be lasting.
3. Scrutinize high-frequency data: Aggregates, averages, and episodic statistical data will not reveal the weak signals of change. Companies need to access and analyze high-frequency data, such as data on credit card transactions, at a very granular level to spot emerging trends.
4. Identify your revealed weaknesses: The crisis will unquestionably exhibit needs for more sweeping readiness, flexibility, agility, or leanness in different parts of your company. Those weaknesses also signal opportunities to renew your products and business model and serve customers better. They may also help you understand broader customer needs since others are likely to be experiencing similar stresses.
5. Study regions further ahead in the crisis: China and Korea are many weeks ahead of Western countries in their experience of crisis and recovery. By studying what happened in these markets, leaders can better predict which changes are likely to stick or could be shaped. A geographical fast-follower strategy may be available to agile players.
6. Scan for nonconformist activity: Some companies, often smaller players on the edges of your industry, will be making bets predicated on new customer needs or behavioral patterns. Ask yourself, who are these mavericks, and which potential branches and leaves on the tree of possible shifts are they betting on? Are those bets gaining traction? What are you missing? From there, you can decide on the appropriate response to each opportunity or threat: ignore, investigate further, create an option to play, replicate and exceed, buy the maverick, or act with high priority.
7. Look at which new patterns reduce friction: Frictions are unnecessary delays, costs, complexities, mismatches with needs, or other inconveniences that a customer experiences in using a particular offering. Forced habits that entail more friction than the traditional alternative are likely to be temporary: we may be forced to eat only canned food from our pantries in a crisis, but many are likely to return promptly to consuming fresh food when it is over. On the other hand, forced habits that reduce friction are more likely to stick: how many of us relish the thought of carving out a couple of hours each day to reach our workplaces? High-friction areas are also ones where it is logical for mavericks to innovate and where they are more likely to succeed.
8. Maintain hope and growth orientation: It’s almost inevitable that we will face a deep post-crisis recession. This is not a reason to postpone innovation and investment. Counterintuitively, 14% of companies grew both their top and bottom lines during recent economic downturns, and our analysis shows they create value mainly through differential growth. This is true across all industries. The evidence is clear: the best time to grow differentially is when aggregate growth is low. Flourishers, in a downturn, do reduce costs to maintain viability, but they also innovate around new opportunities, and they reinvest in growth pillars to capture the opportunity in adversity and shape the post-crisis future.