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Shouldn’t Business Unusual Become More Usual?

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Business Unusual is a bye word for many of the most complex challenges of modern leadership and strategy. Typically, it is seen as the opposite of business as usual – as something exotic and rare. However, that marginalizes strategy and innovation, whereas it should be a part of everyday business. Isn’t it time that business unusual became more usual?

At a Cross-Roads

We are at a crossroads’ said the CEO in a matter-of-fact tone of voice. ‘I have no doubt…’ he added ‘…that our business in 3 to 5 years will be dramatically different to what it is today’.  ‘It will have to be…’ he continued ‘…because our market will be very different – some aspects of our customers, channels and competitors will be unrecognizable’.  He concluded by saying that ‘business as usual was not an option’.

The cross-roads metaphor goes to the hearth of how we have traditionally thought of business strategy and innovation. It is where business unusual is seen as a dichotomy, a paradox and a dilemma.  It is seen as something separate and distinct from running a business, rather than being an integral part of it.

A Fundamental Duality

Business Unusual vs Business As Usual is a fundamental duality at the center of business leadership and strategy. It is:

  • A Dichotomy – business as usual and business unusual are traditionally seen as two polar opposites. Some will argue that to be called a ‘project’, an initiative must by definition be ‘business unusual’. Otherwise, it is not a project, but rather a work stream. The warning is this: don’t run BU as if it were BAU.

    BU and BAU are seen as two divergent approaches to leadership and strategy. They represent two contrasting approaches to managing projects or initiatives, with profound implications for organizational structure, behaviors and even ways of working. Indeed, you could go as far as to say that business unusual is what distinguishes leaders from managers.

    The extent of Business Unusual has profound Implications for project success –  for how they are planned, managed, reported on and reviewed.  Also, for the allocation of people and resources.  But more fundamental is the mindset that is required.
  • A Paradox – leaders are told they must set ambitious strategies to shape the future, but not at the cost of short-term performance.  Data reveals the shocking long-term cost of short-termism and how it slashes earnings, profits and growth.
  • A Dilemma – investing in tomorrow’s new products, channels and technologies could cannibalize existing sources of revenue, but if you don’t do it then you could be overtaken by those that do1.

The Business Unusual duality at the centre of business leadership has been described by a variety of terms ranging from ‘teaching an elephant to dance’2 to ‘seeing around corners’3. More technical terms include ‘dual operating system’4 and ‘dual transformation’5. Regardless of the words used, the message is the same – business unusual is complex and difficult too.

Degrees of Business Unusual Thinking

Traditionally the activities of the business and its projects or initiatives were classified as either ‘Business as Usual’ (BAU) or ‘Business Unusual’ (BU).  However, take a look across your organization and you will find projects that span the spectrum from totally business as usual to totally business unusual and all points in between.

As the everyday becomes more complex and less routine, a hybrid of the two is increasingly needed. There is a need to bring the unusual to the usual and visa-versa. So while it is traditionally seen as a dichotomy – it is not binary 0-1, there is a scale from BAU to BU. This is important, it means that business unusual does not mean ‘tearing everything up and starting again’ it can be applied in degrees depending on the opportunity or challenge being faced.

In a fast changing competitive market space, the same as last year is probably not good enough. The question is how can you bring business unusual thinking into everything your organization does?

Democratizing Business Unusual

It is not enough to say ‘business unusual – that is what the project team located In the far corner of the 3rd floor are doing’.  Business Unusual cannot be boxed away like that. Innovation and fresh thinking must be applied to all the activities of the organization, also those new ways of working that provide for greater speed, agility, collaboration and innovation.

If an organization that is 99% business as usual and 1% business unusual then we know what will happen to that rare and precious 1%. Like a diseased cell in the body, it will be attacked by the organization’s immune system

In a fast changing competitive market space, the same as last year is probably not good enough. The question is how can you inject some business unusual into everything your organization does?

Ambitious strategies are high on business as usual – they aim to shape the future of the organization, perhaps even its industry.  But then there can be ambition and innovation in every project or initiative. This is in line with the democratization of innovation – where it is no longer seen as the preserve of software geeks, poloneck wearing visionaries or white coat wearing scientists.  Everybody can and should innovate. It is not just about the next world-beating product, but about continuous improvements across processes, procedure, systems, ways of working and so on.

It’s Unusual

Business Unusual is exactly what it says on the tin: Unusual. It is not the usual ways of working, organizing, managing or executing on strategy. It requires new ways of working, as well as leading. For a start it requires greater speed, agility, collaboration and innovation.

The organization seen through a business unusual lens is very different – it is a matrix rather than just a hierarchy, it is bottom-up rather than just top-down. It is agile and adaptive rather than rigid and inflexible. Thus, the rising popularity of agile is a move in the direction of business unusual, so too is the constant talk of new ways of working.

But isn’t everything unusual? The pandemic has been a crash-course in business Unusual. It has revealed just how agile and innovative our organizations can be. Changes (e.g. remote working or online business models) that could otherwise have taken a decade were realized in a matter of weeks and months. After the last 16 months we are all experts in business unusual. 

Business As Usual Becomes Unusual
The centuries-old prestigious newspaper title was under sustained attack.  The emergence of online marketing and social media had given its advertisers a blinding array of choice. The paper’s large sales force could no longer simply act as order-takers. It needed to become proactive – systematically engaging with new and existing customers to maintain and grow their business. It needed modern tools to make it efficient – a CRM system that could be accessed from the field and that integrated to the paper’s order fulfillment, credit and billing systems.

Well, CRM systems have been around for a long time and could be seen as relatively straightforward from an IT point of view. Could it really be considered business unusual? Well, the paper had failed in two previous attempts to roll out a CRM system, not due to technology but due to poor adoption and a clash with the company’s traditional way of working. A business as usual approach would likely doom the project to failure.

  1. This is classically called the Innovators Dilemma by Clay Christensen where, for example, the fear of cannibalizing legacy products inhibits innovation []
  2. James A. Belasco’s book of the same name from 1991 []
  3. Rita Gunter MC Grath’s book of the same name from 2021 []
  4. (XLR8 by Kotter []
  5. Dual Transformation: How to Reposition Today’s Business While Creating the Future” by Scott D. Anthony, Clark G. Gilbert  Mark W. Johnson []

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