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Strategic agility in the age of COVID-19: focus on day 1 of OWP liVe

June 2020
 - IMD Business School

Renewal not return: leadership in times of COVID-19

Rather than revert to how things were before, companies must leap ahead into a better future, says Jim Hagemann Snabe.

In his OWP liVe keynote address, Jim Hagemann Snabe drew on his long experience as a manager, including 25 years in the IT industry, to explore the implications for leaders at this critical crossroads.

In a world that was already undergoing rapid transformation, the crisis has forced executives to reflect on what kind of society we want to create and what roles businesses should play in the future, he explained.

Rather than criticizing globalization for the spread of COVID-19, Snabe said it had brought billions of people out of poverty.

“All our big problems today – whether climate, growth, or COVID-19 – are global in nature. How can you solve global problems without global cooperation?”

Responding to uncertainty with strategic agility

The tyranny of core business and stubborn leaders can destroy agility, according to IMD Professor Stéphane Girod.

Established companies must “shake the tyranny of the core business” to take calculated risks and embrace open-minded leadership in the digital age, said Professor of Strategy and Organizational Innovation Stéphane Girod.

In his OWP liVe session “Responding to uncertainty with strategic agility”, Professor Girod said business leaders should balance stability against nimbleness and simplicity with complexity to navigate an increasingly uncertain environment.

“Large companies tend to begin their adaption to the digital age from a position where they are very stable – they don’t want to self-cannibalize,” Girod said. “But this tyranny of the core business prevents us from reinventing the next one.”

It is not necessarily the employees that do not want to change and go in new directions, he said. “The problem is very often middle and top management.”

Immunity to change: how to help people who want to change but don’t

Testing your assumptions is the first step to becoming a great leader

In a session on why people want to change but find it so hard, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior John Weeks said we harbor “hidden commitments” to our usual behaviors which stop us from changing. It’s not that we lack willpower.

The key, he said, was “to surface and release the hidden commitments that are stopping us from changing and holding us captive to our usual behaviors. It’s a powerful understanding to recognize your competing commitments.”

Behind hidden commitments are assumptions. “Typically,” he said, “these assumptions are so strong, so ‘obvious’ to you, that you don’t test them. People are going to reject me is a strong one. Or, I am incapable of handling the conversation in a positive way.” Are you sure? Perhaps you need some practice, or some training.

What’s more, he said, sometimes “we have very different assumptions about other people than we do about ourselves.” Will they really react badly to negative feedback, for example? Put yourself in their shoes.

Cybersecurity incident handling

In recovering from cyberattacks, leaders can’t be overconfident in their company messaging 

Oyku Isik, Professor of Technology Management, led a session on handling cybersecurity incidents, using real-time simulation to discuss principles of crisis management.

When communicating with customers after their privacy has been violated, she advised leaders: “Being truthful is more important than financial compensation. Convince customers you have the right processes in place to recover from the situation.”

Overall it is about finding that sweet spot between not blowing your own trumpet to advertise foolproof security – after all every system is vulnerable – and rebuilding customer trust. “Choose your words carefully; don’t invite hackers back by saying you’ve protected everything!”

Leading collective genius – collaborative mindset for a sustainable future

In a world blighted by the COVID-19 crisis, “for-benefit” companies are emerging to disrupt the age-old non-profit versus for-profit tussle, says IMD Professor Katharina Lange.

“Exasperated, fragile systems – this is what we are seeing at the moment,” said IMD Professor of Leadership Katharina Lange during a session she moderated, “Leading collective genius – Collaborative mindset for a sustainable future” at the inaugural OWP liVe.

With healthcare on the brink of collapse, economic systems in upheaval and the environment under duress, Professor Lange believes society is due for a correction.

“Looking at it from a leadership angle, we need to find better ways to govern and guide,” advised Professor Lange. “We must bring resilience back into these fragile systems that have been stripped in the name of efficiency over the past few decades.”

“What is the right level of profit?” Ann Florini, Professor at the Washington hub of the Thunderbird School of Global Management ASU and incoming board member of Mars,asked. “Companies must consider how what they do creates value for all stakeholders, not just shareholders.” Florini was joined at the session by John Davison, CEO of Zuellig Pharma

Explore the impact of COVID-19 on digital transformation

New research from IMD has found that organizations prioritizing innovation have recorded the best performance throughout the pandemic.

When participants of “Explore the impact of COVID-19 on digital transformation” led by Michael Wade, Professor of Innovation and Strategy, were asked how the pandemic had affected their companies’ digital transformation, 62% said it had accelerated digital transformation, and 36% said it had significantly done so.

COVID-19 has pushed digital to the top of the agenda. “The data suggests that there’s no better time than right now to accelerate what you’re doing,” Wade said, because from a strategic perspective, many cultural barriers have been removed, thanks to the pandemic and the accompanying economic downturn.

“The message here is: take the win. But don’t necessarily expect the next transformation to go so smoothly. Make sure you’re setting appropriate expectations,” he said.

Once I knew it all: the arc of ideas in a life in innovation

Don’t trust technology, says IMD Professor of Innovation Management Bill Fischer

In Professor Fischer’s last lecture after a 25-year career at IMD, he told the incredible story of his life in innovation. From humble beginnings in Brooklyn, New York the electrician by trade rose up the ranks to hold top positions for aerospace and steel industry champions as well as the World Health Organization.

“I thought I knew a lot about technology,” he smiled, “but of the five things I once held true, only one has remained.”

The old ways of working in innovation are obsolete, according to Professor Fischer. For example, the “funnel” approach of narrowing down ideas into a few probable candidates for success.

And that one belief that has stood the test of time?

“Innovation is still about the people,” said Professor Fischer. “As a manager, you have to be willing to give up control so that the bright people you supervise are able to run.”

Professor Fischer ended his long, respected career with this key takeaway: “Learning is more important than knowledge.”