Over the past month, we’ve been in touch with several dozen growth leaders at large enterprises. Who better to navigate uncertainty, create rapid prototypes, and make effective pivots? Here is a snapshot of how they are responding to the pandemic. 

1. Serve and Protect

Their first response was to focus on serving their employees and their core business. This is what innovation groups always do, but the focus had to change. First priority was employee safety and continuity of operations under work-from-home orders. And preservation of operating capital until the extent of the disruption was more clear.

“I think we have only 5 of our ~65 people remaining in the office, and we have a plan to get them able to work from home this week. Phew.” — Logistics Executive

“We’re hunkering down, instinctively, even though we know healthcare isn’t going to get smaller from this.” — Healthcare CTO

2. Three Stages: REACT, RE-PLAN, RESUME

Large enterprises have to be planned, or else there is too much waste. But there was no plan for this. Our conversations clearly revealed three stages to fill that gap.

  1. REACT (March): In March, most companies froze everything while they figured out what was essential and what wasn’t. Employees shifted work to their homes, and continuity of operations was the order of the day.
  2. RE-PLAN (April): Once they knew their firms could operate, the re-planning process started. This included formalizing budget cuts (to 60% of plan in some cases), hiring freezes, and other preservation-oriented decisions. 
  3. RESUME (May): Only a handful of enterprises have shifted to their new normal. Most, however, expect to have new 2020 plans confirmed in the next 10 days that will help them communicate priorities and track progress.

“We still have to plan for our entire year, in addition to having a plan to navigate the crisis we’re in. So nothing goes away, even though we’re leading this organization from our homes.” — Large non-profit Chief Strategy Officer


3. Five Archetypes / Know your status relative to your ecosystem

Each growth leader took stock of their business situation, relative to others in their ecosystem. It was less important to think about what their competitors might be doing, and more important to understand the stresses their customer and partners were feeling. Their React and Re-Plan actions varied accordingly.

  1. Direct Hit: Sectors like hospitality and restaurants that are being completely disrupted.
  2. Collateral Damage: Many businesses sit adjacent to the Direct Hit segments, or depend indirectly on travel. These include durable goods, transportation, education, and business services. Their revenues are down 25-50% in many cases.
  3. First Responders: Healthcare, Grocery, Public Safety, and other segments that are truly called on to serve.
  4. Critical Infrastructure: Telcos, utilities, consumer packaged goods, package delivery, call centers, and others that enable the daily lives of citizens.
  5. Spared, but Spun: Others, while lucky to have dodged a major blow, have found that their business has been reoriented overnight. Financial Services had to go fully digital; Retail became all e-tail; Food & Beverage have to deal with unprecedented bulk-buying behaviors.

“We have two divisions. One makes ventilators, the other makes supplies for elective surgery. They are in totally different places (in this crisis).” — Medical Device Executive

“Ironically, a lot of the digital service offerings and new business models we’ve been working on are the perfect antidote to the current period of anxiety.” — Innovation Lab Lead at Apparel Company


4. Optimize the Essentials / Do The RIght Thing

Growth and innovation staff flowed directly to the core business, without hesitation. Their skills are optimized for creating order out of chaos. In our interviews, they were part of virtual teams figuring out how to add shifts to plants, how to set new industry standards for EHR reporting, how to locate and re-route PPE, whatever was essential. Some first-hand examples we heard:

  • A Healthcare Publisher figured out how to update their COVID-19 diagnosis and treatment guidelines multiple times per day, and translate that into 15 languages; while giving the service away free to everyone.
  • A Respirator Manufacturer figured out how to increase production capacity by 10X in about three weeks.
  • A Healthcare Advocacy firm worked day and night to get telehealth reimbursement approved.
  • A global Hospitality Brand provided free hotel rooms to front-line healthcare workers to travel from less-affected areas to New York City and support the outbreak.

“Stopping things is fine for a day or two, but immediately our people wanted to contribute directly to solving the problem. Getting those initiatives up and running has been a shot in the arm.” — Telco Growth Executive


5. Shift focus to “Near-Future Essential”

Once the core business has more or less adapted to the crisis, the leaders we spoke with had begun to consider what’s over the next horizon. From a simple “Essential-vs-Not Essential” frame, they added something that could be called “Near-Future Essential.” These are projects that are future-focused, but much closer-in than 2021. For example:

  • Retail: Make-shift curbside pickup meets the need for now, but how can this become better-enabled, both digitally and physically?
  • Elective surgeries: These will rebound, but how fast? What inventories will spoil in the interim? 
  • Distance learning: This has gone from a nice-to-have to a must-have for the foreseeable future.

“Some sectors of the business must charge ahead, but with new priorities. For us, that will feel a little like business as usual, but with a focus on much nearer-in impact.” — Healthcare CTO

Innovation leaders are always asked to help navigate uncertainty. The responses noted above show how many of them have risen to the occasion of this pandemic. Their role will continue to evolve rapidly in the weeks ahead.

We’re supporting 5 clients with “near-term essentials” to help address this seismic shift. Drop me a line and we can chat about how we could partner with you for a few weeks to help you shine a flashlight in the fog. 

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