Bottlenecks, assumptions and myths: Has COVID-19 exposed the true potential of Australian companies?


One of the unexpected outcomes of a tough year has been that the pandemic has busted many beliefs about how to run an organisation.

Since the onset of COVID-19, Australia’s public and private sectors have made unprecedented shifts in record time.

Navigating the crisis, many companies quickly shifted to ‘survival minimum’ mode, making radical changes to the way they operate.

The sometimes surprising result: many experienced significant productivity leaps, reaping gains in speed and efficiency that they now hope to lock-in.

In the case of the public sector, when the pandemic struck, the federal government moved quickly and within days of lockdown starting.

Australian GPs received a Medicare rebate number for telehealth consults, increasing volumes by 43% to nearly one-in-six adult Australians within the period of April to early-May.

In the private sector, a top-tier Australian grocery retailer doubled its online order capacity within one month through the rapid redeployment of employees and a combination of new offerings, such as an ‘essentials’ box, pop-up delivery hubs and new last-mile fulfilment partnerships.

In another instance, an Australian telco organisation was able to get back to normal customer services levels less than three weeks after losing a significant portion of its overseas contact centre due to COVID-19 restrictions, by leveraging and quickly mobilising their retail store teams.

Underpinning these dramatic results are very different ways of working based on a simpler way of operating.

Boundaries and silos have been removed. New technology has been adopted quickly. The pace of decision-making has accelerated.

One CEO had a bold and challenging message: “We adopted new technology overnight, not the usual years it takes. How can we ever tell ourselves again that we can’t be faster when we’ve proven that we can?”

Leaders are spending more time in direct connection with teams, while teams of high-calibre talent can be assembled quickly to confront the most important problems and address big opportunities.

These COVID-19 successes challenge many common assumptions about how to run a large organisation.

For example, the idea that most large organisations operate at close to full efficiency has been dispelled by the fact that many businesses delivered months’ worth of work in weeks, relying on far fewer people.

The common belief that process and IT changes are the bottleneck to change is contested by the fact that companies with singular purpose adopted new technology overnight and launched products in days.

And the implicit certainty that co-location is essential to employee productivity is now doubted by the many of us who have experienced first-hand that remote work might actually increase performance.

Companies may start their tactical adjustments by clarifying lasting practices for hybrid remote work.

For example, many companies have realised that the activities of its office staff would support a much higher level of remote working than previously thought possible.

Companies may also want to formalise new paths of decision-making that proved effective during the crisis.

If the top team has been effective making many more decisions during COVID-19, shouldn’t it continue to do so in the future?

As the saying goes: ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste.’

We see that companies aiming for a full reset are following a common pattern: reflect, decide, and deploy at scale.

Reflection is crucial because many COVID-19 changes were fueled by adrenaline rather than careful planning. They may not be sustainable without adjustment.

The leadership team must explicitly settle on what changes to the old operating model will serve as the foundation of the new normal.

Finally, deploying at scale is typically unleashed by a deep transformation in one area (a pilot) followed swiftly by company-wide transformation.

As organisations review the lessons from a turbulent year, one to consider is that during COVID-19, many organisations have seen higher customer satisfaction and employee productivity.

In one McKinsey survey, for example, the number of employees who felt more productive working from home increased by 45% from April to May 2020.

Companies that manage to maintain their COVID-19 pace sustainably will leapfrog competitors who don’t.

How much of the newfound performance should Australia companies retain before the pendulum swings back to pre-COVID normality? The time to decide is now.


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