Leadership and Resilience Thinking: Connecting the dots

COVID remains a ravaging force across the world. The spate of deaths and forced isolation persists despite all odds. Barely halfway into January the death count alone presents a significant foreboding of what 2021 may portend. And it is really unnerving that we are getting used to people dying daily at such record numbers. We need the scientists driving key decisions on science and medicine, and planners and strategists working alongside them.

I had some interesting conversations last week on ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ disciplines. It is thought provoking how funders of research often seek the former with vigour, ignoring other key knowledge areas that are needed alongside them. Consider the COVID vaccine distribution debacle we are currently experiencing, the scientists have done their part in developing the vaccines, but the networks and planning needed to get them effectively and efficiently delivered is not the job of scientists.

Given that we are now in an era that most traditional ideas and ideals are failing or have been proven inadequate, we must be poised to rethink how we do everything.

Thus, ignoring obvious sights and sounds of change is no longer possible as information of all kinds is available for people to find, use and misuse. We are now in the lane of hard truths and focused actions where the only way out is to focus on the issue. The position taken to address the genuine concerns of people must be to respond ethically and constructively and to forge ahead productively.

Suppose we could ask the following questions.
Should systems be built to stimulate self-recovery upon disruptive impact, refocus and transmute to new forms or resist new possibilities that jettison existing structure? What is the best route to take in an increasingly volatile world, given the risk involved?

In resilience studies, there are guidelines for decision makers. The OECD [1] conducts extensive studies on resilience, and in a 2014 report, I identified two critical elements in the planning for resilience: a thorough understanding of the risk landscape and how to cushion and protect the system accordingly. But in a situation when the disruption defies logic, like COVID, who do we rely on to provide the strategic insights and leadership?

For example, in a study by Arlington Research and the Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) nearly half of those in decision making positions could not ascertain that their organization is committed to strategic leadership [2]. One major reason good organisations fail is often due to the fault lines in translating knowledge into actionable steps that key stakeholders can buy into.
This is often indicative of how much risk appetite or aversion decision makers have. For example, an organisation that seeks to be agile will usually be structurally flexible and would have business rules that can support that.

In resilience thinking, the hard choices are not overlooked or avoided, and they not only make it into the decision room, but into the plan.


Explaining Resilience: Retail Industry Responses to COVID-19 Impact

In responding to the impact of Covid-19 lockdowns, retailers have shown tremendous resilience across the retail ecosystem. Those who haven’t figured out how to stay relevant and in business have either closed shop completely or are raking in losses that may ultimately force them to do so. But despite the obvious challenges, many retailers have managed to show off their resilience. Two discourse examples are presented here: Co-op and Asda.

For Asda, it doubled down on its efforts at embracing change beyond simply enabling a seamless online shopping process, by focusing on the whole shopping experience for its customers with its new fleet of e-vehicles to facilitate its home delivery [4].

This e-vehicle deployment is also part of Asda’s acts of responsiveness to reduce their impact on the environment, and also of inclusiveness for more accessible use of the roads by pedestrians.  For Co-op, which currently has the most availability in the Deliveroo app it has been expanding its online delivery of orders to shoppers across the UK not losing sight of its eco-friendly home delivery services [5].

Compare the actions of these two retailers to that of Primark, which is responding differently. The latter has chosen to ignore the seismic impact of the pandemic’s disruption on the retail industry and the deactivation of physical spaces and places. This positioning may be emblematic of any number of issues that we can surmise around the agility of the business or the ideology of its leadership; but it is often quite costly to the brand. For example, Primark had raked in £2 billion in losses from slump in sales as most of its stores remain shut through the repeated lockdowns [4]. Even where the stores open, they are causing worsening shopping experiences for customers due to social distancing rules and other restrictions. And these losses will be passed on to customers as higher prices.

There are other negative impacts to such a lack of responsiveness to change, one of which is the compounding loss of useful learning and the learning curve to transmute quickly into more responsive channels that are key to any future expansion. Thus, for retailers, like Asda, the value accruing across their internal and external publics as a result of this agility, is huge, even when such a bold stance means the business may be currently spending more on the new channel. But for retailers like Primark, the implication of their position in the long run is at best, unknown, as many high street clothing retailers, such as the Arcadia group that owns several high street stores, like Topshop, are closing shops, and others that are online suggests that the costs of running digital channels can be high.

On a deeper dive, there are advantages to a firm’s agility in the time of resilience. The ability of retailers, like Asda and Co-op to adapt quickly to change may explain the propensity to connect the dots to the needs of their communities, in a positively relevant way. Asda on its part has demonstrated a sound focus on the issues by its investments in digital inclusion, donating laptops to children who cannot afford one for their distance learning education. For Co-op the contribution is quite ingenious, the delivery drivers wear masks with the inscription “I’ve got time to chat” to encourage customers to take time to chat with them if they need to [6]. This idea came about in response to the issue of isolation and loneliness that have become the new normal in a COVID world. And it is an example how such intuitive gestures may have as much impact as donations.

Thus, Asda and Co-op did not only respond with agility during the pandemic’s disruption, but also in ways that are demonstrable of an understanding of the issues around responsiveness and inclusiveness. In contributing value to their various publics and community, therefore, these brands excelled whilst others remained disillusioned and, in some cases, reticent to the pull of change.

And whilst most of the retailers in the UK have continued to exhibit tremendous optimism, those that have tanked had, by an inability to form successful alliances and transmute to hybrid or digital versions of their brick and mortar selves.

Could this agility be ‘resilience’?
Quite frankly, it’s more likely than not that an agile business will adapt to new or emerging realities in demonstrable forms of resilience. But further exploration and analysis of the phenomenon is needed to duly generalise.

Thank you for your kind attention and feel free to contribute to the comment section.

Yours truly,
Shade Adepeju-Joseph Dip M MA MS PMP FCIM

[1]     OECD (2014). Guidelines for resilience systems analysis, OECD Publishing.
[2]   Stallard, P. (2020, December 02). CIM & Arlington Research: What’s driving your decision? Retrieved January 03, 2021, from https://www.arlingtonresearch.global/are-business-leaders-using-data-before-developing-strategies-and-implementing-tactics-cim/
[3]     In Statista. Retrieved January 17, 2020, from https://www.statista.com/statistics
[4]     Stevens, B. (2021, January 22). Primark’s refusal to go online could mean “the start of the end” for the beloved brand – Latest Retail Technology News from Across the Globe. Retrieved January 23, 2021, from https://www.chargedretail.co.uk/2021/01/21/primarks-refusal-to-go-online-could-mean-the-start-of-the-end-for-the-beloved-brand/
[5]    Nott, G. (2020, October 21). Co-op ramps up online home delivery service across Scotland.    Retrieved January 18, 2021, from https://www.thegrocer.co.uk/online/co-op-ramps-up-online-home-delivery-service-across-scotland/649562.article?itm_source=Bibblio&itm_campaign=optimised_end_article
[6]    Stevens, B. (2021, January 11). Co-op drivers to wear “I’ve got time to chat” badges amid efforts to tackle lockdown loneliness – Latest Retail Technology News from Across the Globe. Retrieved January 18, 2021, from https://www.chargedretail.co.uk/2021/01/08/co-op-drivers-to-wear-ive-got-time-to-chat-badges-amid-efforts-to-tackle-lockdown-loneliness/

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