Lasting shifts in social attitudes, policy, work, and consumption are likely to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s hard to predict precisely how it will shape our perspectives on society, but it’s plausible that we could see a greater focus on crisis preparedness, systems resilience, social inequality, social solidarity, and access to health care. It’s also easy to see how the crisis could accelerate nationalistic tendencies, and some commentators are already talking about the possibility of a “great decoupling” of international interdependencies. At an individual level, it’s also possible that we may adjust how we view the balance between work and family life, having been reminded of what is truly important to us.
Attitudes, policies, and the direct experience of the pandemic are already changing how we work, including greater emphasis on remote working, digital collaboration, workplace hygiene, and protections for temporary workers, for example.
Practical steps companies can take to sense, exploit, and shape the post-COVID-19 reality:
1. Expect change and look ahead. Organisations tend to become myopic and insular when under threat. But crises often mark strategic inflection points, and a necessary 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. For example, if leaders’ and workers’ attitudes toward remote working shift after a few months of experiencing it, that could have significant consequences for office equipment, office real estate, home remodeling, transportation, and other sectors and segments.
3. Scrutinize granular, 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 in order to spot emerging trends.
4. Identify your own revealed weaknesses. The crisis will undoubtedly expose needs for greater preparedness, resilience, 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 maverick 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 a growth orientation. It’s almost inevitable that we will face a deep postcrisis 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 in order to capture opportunity in adversity and shape the postcrisis future.