The pandemic utterly changed our lives and our work in so many ways. However, there was a surprising upside for strategy. Now that the pandemic is over that benefit is being lost.
The twin performance and transformation goals of strategy came closer during the pandemic than ever before. Dramatic transformations, such as remote working and digitization, became essential to performance. Moreover, they happen almost overnight.
The present market environment has put pressure on short term performance. This has the potential to undermine longer term transformation initiatives and reinforce the divide between strategy and execution.
As every leader knows, there are two parts to strategy. The first is performance. The second is transformation. Both are important, but they don’t always co-exist very well. Indeed, there are times when they may be at odds with each other. Such a time is now, when pressure on performance can distract from strategies for longer term transformation.
Performance is primarily concerned with meeting the number this quarter and the next. However, managed this way performance inevitably trails off over time. When this will happen is difficult to predict, with organizations often taken off-guard. Hence the need for transformation in tandem with performance.
While maximizing today’s performance, organization’s must also undertake those changes and innovations necessary to ensure sustained performance into an increasing unpredictable and fast changing future. This is the ‘transform‘ aspect of strategy. Such transformations may involve new products, channels, business models, modes of delivery and so on. Also, new organizational structures, systems and even cultures.
Attending to the needs of both short-term performance and longer term transformation sounds very practical and necessary. It is not easy, however. The pressure to perform this quarter and the next, combined with the prevailing busyness of the day-to-day, means leaders struggle to look to the future. Transformation requires ‘paying it forward’, something that leaders may not be rewarded for. It is also something that the traditional planning or budgeting cycles can make difficult.
The pandemic resulted in the surprise marriage of performance and transformation. Normally at odds with each other, the requirements of performance and transformation were united in the now – in the everyday reality of business.
Performance this quarter and the next demanded immediate transformations in how business was done. Changes that might otherwise have taken decades (e.g. remote working or digitization) occurred almost overnight.
Performance and transformation became mutually dependent during the pandemic. Organizations that had been toying with digitization became committed advocates overnight. Those who had commuted all their lives suddenly found themselves working from home. The speed of these transformations revealed just what was possible. Transformation didn’t have to happen at a snail’s pace, it could also be turbo-like!
Moreover, these transformations did not happen because of a high-profile transformation initiative driven by corporate senior management. They did not require high profile launch events or even marketing slogans. They occurred right across the organization bottom to top (as well as top to bottom).
Unfortunately, when it comes to the marriage of performance and transformation the honeymoon was short-lived. The present market environment (with pressure on short term performance) threatens once again to push performance and transformation apart. The danger is that it becomes performance versus transformation.
Slowing growth and uncertainty can pit performance against transformation. With pressure on performance, leaders struggle to look beyond meeting then number this quarter and the next.
Budget cuts and resource scarcity put longer term transformational projects and initiatives are at risk. Naturally, projects with a fast payback going to the top of the agenda. Investing in the longer term, isn’t easy when short term performance is under pressure.
Executives are under more pressure than ever. There is a prevailing level of busyness and urgency within many organizations. Increasingly, the scarcest resource is time and attention.
Caught up in the busyness of the day to day – the endless procession of meetings, emails, etc. – there is little time to think, much less to think strategically. Leaders may find themselves working on strategic initiatives ‘at the corner of their desk’ – struggling to find an uninterrupted hour here and there to devote to them.
Once again, the requirements for today’s performance are potentially at odds with the demands for tomorrow’s transformation. Thereby reinforcing the age-old gap between strategy and execution.
The question is: How will you balance the needs of performance and transformation? This is a question that we have been asking senior leaders in our latest and most exciting research project yet.