Why Some Companies Thrived During the Pandemic
Keith Ferrazzi, founder of the consulting firm Ferrazzi Greenlight, led a survey of more than 2,000 executives to study how they reengineered operations during the pandemic. The research identified a kind of extreme adaptability at the team and organizational levels that helped some companies come out on top. Ferrazzi argues that after months of ruthlessly adapting, leaders should continue on a path of resilience and agility to stay competitive in the post-Covid-19 world. And he offers concrete steps to take. Ferrazzi is a coauthor of the new book Competing in the New World of Work: How Radical Adaptability Separates the Best from the Rest.
CURT NICKISCH: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Curt Nickisch.
There’s a basic practice of driving a car that applies to business downturns and unexpected detours. And that’s driving in a curve. When you approach one, it’s best to slow down before you get to it. You don’t slam the brakes when you’re in it, that’s dangerous. And then partway through the curve, you start hitting the gas pedal and accelerate out of the curve.
Companies that do this in economic downturns can come out of them in a very different competitive position. Research shows that many of those that invest in technology and their workforces while still in the recession go from being industry laggards to leaders.
And today’s guest says that applies to the current curve ball that’s been thrown at businesses, the pandemic. He says it would be a mistake to come out of it thinking, it’s time to go back to work, back to a new normal. Rather, he makes the case that organizations and their leaders need to keep leveling up all of this nimbleness and resilience they’ve learned over the last couple of years to slingshot forward into the future.
Our guest today is Keith Ferrazzi. He’s the founder of the consulting firm, Ferrazzi Greenlight. And he’s the lead author of the book, Competing in the New World of Work: How Radical Adaptability Separates the Best from the Rest. Hey, Keith, thanks for coming on the show.
KEITH FERRAZZI: Curt, what a great introduction. Thank you so much for that. And it’s great to see you again.
CURT NICKISCH: Adaptability has always been a powerful business concept, right? But you’ve got that word radical in the title, radical adaptability. It’s almost like you’re trying to shake people a little bit by their shoulders. Do you sense some complacency out there?
KEITH FERRAZZI: Oh, absolutely. When we went into the pandemic, it’s not like we didn’t have a dearth of volatility. We’ve been dealing in volatility for decades. And we’ve been dealing with a pace of change for decades that many organizations have failed to keep up with. And all of a sudden we hit the pandemic. I love your analogy. We go into the curve. And the question is, how do we adapt to the most radical volatility we ever have?
Now, many organizations have had aspects of agility and foresight and others embedded into some parts of their business. But very few organizations were fully prepared for the level of adaptability that was going to be necessary. If you look at the process called agile, many organizations might have had isolated elements of agile going on in their software, their IT division. Maybe program, project management.
But we entered an era where we were in what I called crisis agile, up and down the organization. What have we gotten done? What do we need to do next? Where are we struggling? And that was a daily activity. I don’t want to lose that. I don’t want to lose that. There was so much attentiveness to the nuance of change and stepping up and meeting it in more innovative ways than ever before. I want to hold onto that and go forward to work, not back to work.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah. And why? I mean, do you have the sense that something changed during the pandemic that is here to stay?
KEITH FERRAZZI: Well, as I mentioned, I feel that the level of volatility has been there for some time, but we were able to cling by our fingertips on the ledge to old ways of working that weren’t working for us, even in the decades prior to the pandemic. In the pandemic, everything broke. And we definitely were fractured, frustrated, fearful, and we needed to change new ways of working.
Those that did thrived. The basis, Curt, of our research was that we identified 2,000 executives during the pandemic. And we worked with those 2,000 executives to ask them the question, what did you see, you and your team and your organization doing that truly allowed you to succeed, thrive, maybe just survive, but ideally succeed and thrive during the pandemic so that we could hold onto those. And we aggregated those best practices and we actually inserted them into new organizations. Measured the outcomes of those best practices until we had really created this methodology of radical adaptability, that we decided all organizations should hang on to coming out of the pandemic.
CURT NICKISCH: Now, in your book, you look at ways to make teams radically adaptable, and then also how to do the same for organizations. Let’s start with teams. You challenge team leaders to promote team resilience. I want to ask why that is because a lot of people might think, “Well, we’ve learned to be resilient.”
KEITH FERRAZZI: What we identified in the research was that resilience was thought of as an individual sport. It was, I am resilient. What we saw though were that the organizations that thrived and had better engagement scores, less reported mental stress, stronger mental resilience, these organizations recognized that resilience was actually a team sport, where the team adopted a commitment to raise each other’s energy, to identify each other’s energy.
I’ll give you another very simple nugget or a practice that came out of the chapter around resilience, which is a leader doing a monthly energy check. I just did it this morning, actually, with a client, where you just go to the chat room and you say to your team, “How is your energy these days? From a scale of zero, I’m lying in the mud puddle, all the way to a five, which is I’m skipping on rainbows with unicorns. Put your energy level in the chat room.”
Now, in this case, there were three individuals that had scores between zero and two. It was actually, it was a zero, one and a two. But it allowed us to pause and say, “Jane is everything okay? I see you put a two.” Jane’s answer was, “Well, last night was just a tough night with the kids. They were up all night.” “Got it. Hope you get some rest.”
But in one other instance with David, David actually reported that his spouse needed a kidney transplant. And the family’s been struggling with that. Now, this was an individual who was the head of HR of this company. And this was something they had discovered two weeks before, but the team didn’t know about it.
And it was such a simple and elegant safety net practice to bring into a team, but it’s more than just that. It creates bonding, empathy and relationship, which then breeds higher degree of psychological safety for risk-taking and for a challenger sense of safety in the room, et cetera. So there’s so many goodies that come from that simple, elegant little practice.
CURT NICKISCH: You also challenge leaders to get their teams to develop active foresight. And it seems like an interesting time to do that because a lot of people are kind of looking forward to the coming out of the curve and enjoying the straightaway for a while. And you’re encouraging them to look ahead and see more curves, and try to learn to see around the curves that are coming.
KEITH FERRAZZI: Yeah. Two of the most important elements to a team’s radical adaptability are agility and foresight, as you’ve suggested. Now, those two are beautiful as bookends to each other. The foresight is identifying and gaining the insights of where should we be going, looking around corners, seeing the risks, seeing the opportunities. The agility married with that is the accompaniment that allows us to get there.
The work of foresight is beautifully illustrated by Rick Ambrose. Rick Ambrose was the president of Lockheed Aerospace. He as a team leader brought a simple elegant process, basically put on a five minute agenda item on his executive team agenda. And every member of the executive team came to the table prepared to announce risk or opportunity that they saw from their vantage point.
So the head of sales was looking at a customer and changes in customer. Head of marketing was looking at competition. The CFO was looking at macro economic, etc. Well, one individual didn’t even have a vantage point on this particular issue but one individual raised their hand and said “I read something about this virus going on in China.”
How this was identified in December. They then decided to park that issue in a January assessment meeting. They made an assessment, and they went into planning and by February they were fully remote. Fewer than 15 percent of organizations were fully remote in advance of the lockdown time and as a result of that you can really see that a simple and elegant foresight process which identifies not only risk but potential opportunities is absolutely critical for all of us to run an agile and adaptable organization.
CURT NICKISCH: This applies on a team level right? Like, you often have people in a team who are aware of other developments or what competitors are doing, but it comes down to practices to kind of bring that out and have them be intentionally discussed and worked up at the team level?
KEITH FERRAZZI: Yeah what a lot of people used to think of as an organizational competency ultimately organizations thrived when they turned those things into a team competency. Like foresight. Many organizations in the financial services industry had very robust risk mitigation and risk management divisions. Not just because they’re financial services companies, but because they had been centered in New York City, they had suffered 9/11, and they really wanted to make sure that their organizations were robust and fortified from risk. And in this case, they had these amazing divisions that had, yes, predicted the challenges of the pandemic, but the executive team didn’t act on it. So parking foresight into an organizational competency does not assure that your organization is going to be adaptable. You need to make sure that it becomes a simple and organic process within the team.
So across the board… We talked about resilience. Across the board we found that resilience used to be thought of as a policy issue, where organizations created policies to make sure that if somebody hit a wall that they’d be taking care of discreetly, privately, elegantly. But what we ultimately found was that when resilience was adopted as a team practice and a team principle and a team priority, that’s when you saw the shift in the metrics because we made it through the pandemic with crisis agile, with crisis resilience. But if we want this to be sustainable, we’ve got to adopt much more elegant practices and processes at the team level that you can actually sustain itself, as opposed to making it sprinting marathons.
CURT NICKISCH: Let’s get into some of your ideas for making organizations radically adaptable, which might be harder than bringing that to teams. You suggest the idea of a Lego block workforce. What does that mean and how do you do that?
KEITH FERRAZZI: Well, I think if we wake up today, it’s been very interesting to watch the shifting relationship between employer and employee. So many of the themes that we saw come to life during the pandemic were things that were certainly visible for decades, but they really landed strongly during the pandemic and they became unavoidable. And one of them is the independence of the associate at the workplace.
And the fact that an individual had the power to plug in and out of organizations anywhere in the world, that in one regard to an employer, particularly a company like let’s say Aflac, which is in the suburbs of Atlanta. That company like that can now hire extraordinary technology talent anywhere in the world. At the same time, that means that individuals could now be hired by any company anywhere in the world. And that shifting scorecard was really shifted to the individual.
So we now have what we call Lego block workforce. We need to think about our employee base like a customer base. And increasingly, as you know, the gig working community is thriving. Individuals choosing to work on their own hours and plug and play into sometimes multiple companies or multiple projects at any given time. And the burden on a company to think about how to reassemble the Lego block workforce is an entirely new skillset than ever before. But what’s exciting about it is that organizations can thrive in this.
CURT NICKISCH: Yeah, this seems almost like a bigger deal and even harder to do well than the simple question of like, do we need to go back into the office and how many days a week? Building a workforce from and changing the employer-employee relationships in a powerful way that benefits everybody seems like a really hard thing to do.
KEITH FERRAZZI: Well, hard but also, as I’m mentioning, incredibly valuable if you get it right. Many organizations really thought that there was this binary, this simple binary decision. Are we remote or are we physical? And of course, what we’ve ended up in is a hybrid type of environment all across that spectrum.
Now, there was a type of collaboration, which we saw emerge as a real extraordinary competitive advantage for teams and organizations that if they mastered had a lot less fatigue and a lot more innovation than their peers who did not. And it’s called asynchronous collaboration.
Now, asynchronous collaboration flies in the face of an old myth or an assumption, which is that all collaboration is a meeting, or at least starts with the meeting. It’s a wonderful example of the chief operating officer of Delta Air Lines, Gil West, who moved over during the pandemic from the COO of Delta Air Lines to become the head of operations at Cruise, the unicorn self-driving automotive car company.
It’s part of General Motors. But it really operates as a distinct entity, allowing its innovation to thrive, et cetera. What he identified was that when he would go over to the new organization and he would say, “Oh, this is an interesting or important issue we need to address. Let’s have a meeting.” And the engineers and the leaders over at Cruise would look at him as if he was crazy, because you don’t start with the assumption in a meeting. That would be too time consuming.
We start collaborating in the cloud. We put an assumption out. We invite dozens perhaps of people to opine, so that they could all visibly debate in a shared Google Doc or a SharePoint document or something. And from that debate in the cloud, which could take several days or a week, there is a discernment of what meetings we actually have to have and who would be in part of them.
I mean, it sort of blows your brain up to think about how organizations lethargically and cumbersomely walk through these meeting after meeting. Which is why so many people were so frustrated with this principle of Zoom fatigue. When in reality, that was just because they used to have physical meetings all the time in the office. We just ported them to remote meetings all the time and just never looked at that other side of the spectrum, which is asynchronous collaboration.
CURT NICKISCH: Another idea that you challenge your readers with is super charging your purpose. Purpose being one of those attributes that’s really been amplified by the pandemic. You showed how organizations that really had a good sense of purpose or put purpose at the front of their decision making, it made their decisions a lot easier.
KEITH FERRAZZI: Yeah. And let me add to that, which is it allowed dispersed alignment and decision-making to be more confident. What I mean by that is, I remember speaking to one of the senior executives at a large telecoms company. And she was saying one of the great things about the way their guidance around purpose was we knew that up and down the organization at the time of crisis, we could drive decision-making further down into the organization, closest to the crisis, closest to the customer, closest to operations. And we didn’t have to worry that the right decision was going to be made – exactly your point. But it wasn’t just allowing the purpose to align us to making the right decisions. It was the ability to trust anybody in the organization at a time like this to disproportionately take risks with more resources than ever before.
Now, let’s pause on that, right? Why isn’t that a sustainable activity? Why do we, then I don’t want to roll back and have, once again, all of the most important decisions to roll up to the highest level of authority. Because what we saw during the pandemic was individuals who… It was a title of a previous book of mine, who are willing to lead without authority, right? Individuals who had a vision for what needed to get done based on their information at the forefront of the challenge or the problem or the opportunity could make the decision. Let’s not go back to old ways of hierarchical goal working. Let’s make sure that that level of empowerment, purpose-driven empowerment thrives and survives.
CURT NICKISCH: I want to close with getting at that individual again, right? For those out there working at established large organizations, what is just one or two things they can do tomorrow, this week, this month, to try to become more adaptable in this world of work we’re in now?
KEITH FERRAZZI: Yeah. Well, as I mentioned, the thread is the team. The thread is this principle of a team committing to a mission and committing to each other to get there. What I might suggest is convening your team with a simple question. The question that was the basis of the book’s research two years ago. What have we seen? And what are we proud of that we did over the last two years that we do not want to go back to old ways of working, but we want to sustain them, hold onto them, celebrate them, institutionalize them, and go forward with those principles?
And what you’ll find… I’ll give you the prescription. You will find that a greater sense of foresight and agility built into our ongoing discussion, not just head down operational focus, but keeping our head up and attuned to the shifts in the marketplace and the shifts in the environment. And then using some form of agile process to attack those. But being willing to constantly pause and shift and pivot as needed. And you’ll find that we were much more inclusive, collaborative than ever before. And we ignored silos. We broke down barriers and we got stuff done.
And then finally, you’ll find that we were more intimate, more connected, more vulnerable, more open, more engaging, and frankly, more of a team than we ever were before. And at a simple basis, I’d say, ask your team to co-create with you. What you will probably find in your microcosm is a very similar set of research that we found over a two-year period with real statistical significance. Open up your team. Open up your team to create the future of how it works in a radically volatile world with radical adaptability.
CURT NICKISCH: Keith, thanks so much for coming on the show and talking about your research.
KEITH FERRAZZI: Curt, beautiful.
CURT NICKISCH: That’s Keith Ferrazzi, the founder and chair of the consulting firm, Ferrazzi Greenlight. And with Kian Gohar and Noel Weyrich, he wrote the new book, Competing in the New World of Work: How Radical Adaptability Separates the Best from the Rest.
For another episode on this topic, check out the one on Building Successful Hybrid Teams, part of our Back to Work, Better series. That’s episode 811.
This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Our audio product manager is Ian Fox. Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Curt Nickisch.