The pandemic has had a dramatic and adverse impact on companies of all sizes and geographic locations over the course of the past several months, including lost revenue, reduction of staff and cuts in IT budgets and spending. However, as we look back, there were some positive aspects as well, and more to come as plans are put in place for a post-COVID recovery.
Most companies, for example, were able to quickly pivot to a work-from-home structure to support employee safety, sustain and even increase productivity, and for the most part keep business activities on track. The transition has been so successful that many organizations plan to keep a portion of their workforce remote for the foreseeable future, in part to provide resiliency in the face of uncertainties. Weaknesses in IT infrastructure, process, and resources also became very apparent during the pandemic, pushing many companies to reduce or eliminate legacy debt, improve security, and increase investments in cloud services.
One additional upshot of the COVID crisis is a significant increase in the pace of digital transformation activities that are rapidly changing business models and user behavior. The pandemic has not only accelerated digitization but has exponentially increased the adoption of a digital process. What we anticipated to happen in the next five years is happening now, and what we thought wouldn’t have worked in the past is now possible because of the pandemic.
Digitization becomes a must-have
The life insurance business, for example, often relies on face-to-face sales interactions. But the pandemic turned that business model on its head. While we were already working on digitizing the sales process, there were pieces that needed to be accelerated or there soon wouldn’t be a business model. For us, digitization activities moved from nice-to-have to must-have in a matter of weeks. If we can’t get data electronically, underwrite automatically, or deliver policies digitally we can’t do business in today’s world.
Since March, we have delivered in less than 30 days two key initiatives that would have taken months, if not a year, to deliver under normal circumstances. The first is an automated underwriting process that uses data to manage risk up to $3MM without requiring the invasive process of going to a client’s house to take and test blood samples. The second project allowed us to electronically deliver policies to our customers since we had a limited in-office staff who did not want to rely on ‘snail mail,’ and agents could not meet the client to deliver the policy themselves. We are now working on the third transformational initiative that was originally projected to span multiple years but will now be done in 18 months.
A shift in measuring success
The acceleration of digital transformation activities has also had an impact on how the success of a project is measured. Traditionally, these metrics are based on the quantitative as well as the qualitative return on investment (ROI). The quantitative ROI is the easiest to calculate since it is typically based on money or time saved as a result of a digital project or initiative.
For example, National Life is saving millions of dollars in printing, postage and fees associated with medical documentation as a result of digitization. We are also delivering the business in days versus weeks. An added benefit of this ROI is that we are saving 25 acres of forest by going paperless, which aligns with our corporate mission to Do Good, Be Good and Make Good.
Qualitative ROI is a bit harder to measure, since in many cases it relates to the connections built at deeper levels within the team because of project collaboration that led to better choices in solutions and pragmatic approaches to delivery. It also includes the stronger and more trusted communication channels that created bonds between people who may not have otherwise worked together. Under pressure, I also witnessed humility and vulnerability among team members, character traits that are hard to measure but important in establishing and reinforcing a strong culture.
An additional metric that is a byproduct of the pandemic is the return on assets (ROA.) Like many companies, we reevaluated many of our tools and technologies as part of a prioritization process and found that many had not been adopted to their fullest—perhaps because we were distracted by shiny, new objects and solutions. This gave us the time to think about how to best move the needle on making better use of the tools already in our tool chest versus looking for new ones. This is a focus we must maintain moving forward and a metric that needs to be a part of how we define and add business value.
The wabi-sabi way
There are several lessons learned over the course of the past several months that, for me, go beyond the traditional metrics and will have an impact on decisions and strategies going forward. Here are a few I’d like to share:
- IT teams have a lot in common with jugglers since they are typically required to always keep multiple balls, or in this case projects, in the air and in motion. Then, the pandemic came along, and even more balls were thrown into the mix. As a result, it is necessary to alter the rhythm to keep all these balls in the air, which means teammates also must adopt the same tempo to get things done. There is no room for personal competition or recognition that might change the frequency and upset the balance. In our case, we ruthlessly balanced our set of priorities and learned to trust our teammates to avoid dropping the ball on stability.
- The drive to be perfect can quickly became a pain point in a period of accelerated digital transformation. When striving for perfection we tend to freeze like a deer in headlights and often not do anything. Or, we procrastinate with endless debates on which direction to take, which ultimately results in an unwillingness to take risks. The ideal solution is to have an entrepreneurial mindset but an enterprise headset and shift from the structured definition of ‘teams’ to the concept of ‘teaming.’ For us, it was an appreciation of what the Japanese call wabi-sabi, or the acceptance that imperfection is a natural part of perfection.
- While we’ve seen a tremendous increase in worker productivity since pivoting to a work-from-home model, in our case a 30% increase or more, it is doubtful we can continue at that pace. People are working hard, long, and smart, which is a perfect trifecta for performance. However, it is not sustainable without making conscious changes. While we all live in a tech world, internally I discovered we needed to ”de-tech” to understand that people are fatigued; leadership tenets must be rebuilt to be more connected and communicative and to acknowledge that we are vulnerable and not superhuman. Creating confidence with humor and empathy is also important, which brings me to my last point.
- Now more than ever storytelling is an important tool to reduce complexity and expose people to ideas rather than directives. The people you lead want to hear about your journey as well as have you understand their personal and professional objectives. As I noted earlier, there are lots of opportunities in this pandemic but exposing people to your ideas and getting people to see things through your eyes is difficult unless they can relate to your journey. When you tell a story and your idea becomes someone else’s idea as well, then it is perceived as a good idea. That is how storytelling can shift the tone and rhythm of leadership from one of direction and delegation to empowerment for the people you lead.