Never before has business resilience in New Zealand relied so much on having dependable technology run by teams that continuously flex to meet new, ever-changing demands. Rule books have been parked and action-slowing bureaucracy eliminated to get the right things done, quickly, for the right reasons. Countdown\u2019s story of adaptation and innovation during COVID-19 provides an interesting case study.\n\nCountdown, which has 183 supermarkets across New Zealand and employs 20,000 staff, experienced a massive peak in demand during the COVID-19 lockdown. At Countdown, customer service and information technology are the same department, ensuring a customer-first approach to the grocer\u2019s technology and other operations.\n\n\u201cWhen we knew something big was happening and that it would be tough for many, we took a \u2018people first\u2019 approach to everything. Our roots are as a grocer\u2014we exist to serve our communities. We knew there would be New Zealanders at home, hungry and needing food on the table, some needing more help than others,\u201d recalls Steve James, head of Technology and Customer Care.\n\nData tells a powerful story of the extent of the challenges Countdown faced:\n\nCultural change enables the rest\n\nThe critical first step was managerial: providing permissive leadership that explicitly honours and supports employees, themselves at risk to the pandemic\u2014especially front-line employees\u2014and then enabled and encouraged them to be innovative, collaborative, and willing to do things differently. This clarity of purpose, combined with a deliberate, adaptive team structure, encouraged the rapid information sharing and diversity of thought needed to solve the challenges on Countdown\u2019s plate.\n\nCountdown put in place small, cross-functional teams that met twice daily to review customer intelligence, plan, make decisions and deliver in short, rapid cycles. Customer buying behaviour\u2014in stores and online\u2014was moving too quickly to use traditional planning and delivery methods. Gone were the 20-slide presentations, replaced instead by concise conversations to make fast decisions and take immediate action. Teams moved to video calls, with more than 300 people joining weekly town hall sessions.\n\nBottom-up empowerment was crucial for getting the work done flexibly and at pace, the work at the helm was also critical. The executive team ran open livestream sessions, with Q&As that were attended by a large and diverse staff group. Teams had a safe and open platform to speak about important issues.\n\nLeadership style and mindset played a central role in building the culture needed within Countdown to get through the crisis, as James explains: \u201cIt was more of a servant leadership model that we adopted, checking in regularly with team members\u2014\u2018Hey Emma, what\u2019s happening with you today, anything I can help you with?\u2019.\u201d\n\nAt every step, Countdown had to solve unusual problems in novel ways. Innovation wasn\u2019t optional when facing this massive rise in demand\u2014it was absolutely essential.\n\nNow that restrictions have eased, and the country has returned to more normal conditions, many of the new ways of working that were introduced during a pandemic are likely to stick. Many of the changes have proven effective such as the idea that governance and operations can benefit from short-iteration decision-making.\n\nHow Countdown bridged the communications gaps\n\nIt helped that Countdown was well down the track of enabling remote working for all staff before COVID-19 struck. It had been working for the past year on preparing for just such a disaster\u2014although they were thinking it would be more likely be an earthquake than a pandemic.\n\nPCs had gradually been replaced by laptops, infrastructure-as-a-service capacity (for remote working) had been enabled so it could be scaled up as required, and Google G Suite jad been deployed so the productivity apps were in the cloud and could be accessed from anywhere.\n\nMeanwhile, the chief information security officer ensured every team member was using two-factor authentication and complex passwords to access the networks.\n\nHow Countdown launched its e-store capability so quickly\n\nTo handle the surge in online ordering, Countdown closed five supermarkets to the public and turned them into \u2018dark stores\u2019\u2014ensuring first that local shoppers had access to alternative stores in or near their suburb.\n\nIn addition, a warehouse was converted into a fully fitted e-store connected into the wider Countdown network. The IT team worked with partners such as Spark to provision cabling, routers and service within just a few days.\n\nThere was an \u201call-hands on deck\u201d mentality which meant that everyone\u2014from customers to suppliers\u2014helped Countdown put in place what was required to provide this essential service.\n\nHow Countdown accelerated its customer service\n\nDue to the unprecedented surge in demand for online shopping, customers could be waiting up to three days to place an order. For those people unable to physically get to a store, Countdown created a progamme that enabled them to receive priority assistance. This involved technology changes, such as re-coding parts of the website, and HR changes, such as re-deploying staff to work in the contact centre.\n\nIn less than a week, Priority Assistance was borne and Countdown proactively contacted organisations such as rest homes and those that cater to people with disabilities to let them know about the programme.\n\nMeanwhile the chatbot Olive was deployed in every customer channel that made sense\u2014from the shopping app to the call flow in the contact centre. Countdown found that people were happy to interact with Olive.\n\nThe use of Olive not only improved the online experience, it meant the chatbot was able to \u2018learn\u2019 more and become better at answering and\/or directing enquiries.\n\nHow Countdown ramped up hiring\n\nEmploying 2,500 staff in such a short time was a huge challenge for both HR and IT. They reached out to those industries suffering the most under lockdown\u2014tourism, airlines, retail\u2014and asked if they could help fill the positions on the condition that their staff could return to their former jobs when things returned to \u2018normal\u2019.\n\nRapid recruitment was done by a combination of video conferencing and in-person interviews over a weekend where people were interviewed in strict social-distancing conditions.\n\nMeanwhile the e-learning capability was ramped up, so new hires could complete their training by video and hit the ground running when they reported for supermarket duty.\n\nPeter Johnston is a strategy, business design and transformation specialist. He writes about these topics based on his experiences in many organisations. Having run business consulting teams across Europe, the UK and Australasia, he established and led the IBM iX consulting practice in New Zealand, and over the years has worked with Heathrow Airport, British Film Institute, ANZ Bank, Air New Zealand, Vodafone and Watercare, among others.