Martyn Drake: Those most agile will survive lockdown most easily

It's a marathon, not a sprint, and adaptability is a prerequisite, innovation essential

Martyn Drake
Martyn Drake

I’ve spent much of the past two weeks in one-to-one support calls, chief executive round tables and trade association webinars for various sectors. And through all those conversations three big, challenging themes keep coming out, again and again.

The first is how to manage cash flow and, frustratingly, I still can’t speak to the situation for charities. As I write this article on Friday there’s still nothing coming from the government and, by the time it’s published on Monday, who knows what the situation will be.

What I can give, for what it’s worth, is three generic bits of advice:

  • Try to pull forward as much income as you can;
  • Reduce and delay your outgoings as much as possible; and
  • Cut your costs quickly but, above all, thoughtfully, because…

The second big theme is relationships.

Top of that pile are staff and beneficiaries. We’re used to putting the needs of beneficiaries and service users above all else, but right now employees and volunteers are every bit as big a priority.

For the ones who are working, we need to keep them safe and sane; and for the ones that are furloughed and in isolation, it’s about keeping them supported and engaged.

Nobody will come through this unscathed. Whether retained or furloughed, your people will need your support more than they’ve ever done, whether they know it yet or not.

But below staff and beneficiaries is another tier of relationships that will be increasingly important: your customers and commissioners, your suppliers and collaboration partners.

These are the relationships that will be forged or fractured, this is when you’ll find out who these organisations really are, as they will with you.

And it’s the combination of these relationships – with your retained team and your furloughed colleagues, with your customers, stakeholders and collaborators – that will define how well you weather the turbulence of lockdown and the uncertainty of reopening, and how capable and effective you emerge on the other side.

Because, fundamentally, this will be a marathon, not a sprint. When restrictions are lifted, they will almost certainly be in phases. The lockdown isn’t there to eradicate the virus, just to flatten the curve. Governments simply can’t afford to go a day longer than they have to.

So, when it ends, hundreds, possibly thousands of people will still be infectious, the NHS will still be running close to the ragged edge, physical distancing will still be “a thing”, the media will still be sensationalising and people will still be scared: of a second wave, of what happens in the flu season if a vaccine hasn’t been approved, of whether they’ll be able to get jobs, restart their businesses and so on.

The uncertainties we’ve experienced in the past few weeks, the fluidity of the situation, the waiting for announcements, the constant need to react and respond, to move at a pace we’ve never had to before – all of those things will probably be with us far longer than we’d like to think, and we will all somehow need to adapt to this new, uncertain “normal”, to find ways to work sustainably, time to talk strategically and the space to think differently about what we do, how we do it and what needs to change.

Whether we look to the 2008 financial crisis, the dot-com bubble or the long recession of the early 1990s, whenever we’ve been through a big disruption, it's always the innovators, the agile, those who were fastest to adapt to the new normal, who came out in the best shape.

Because in uncertain times, adaptability is a prerequisite, innovation is essential and great ideas invariably stick.

I can’t imagine any of the organisations that have rolled out home working and video conferencing at lightning speed will pull the plug on all that stuff once this is over.

Nobody will be desperately uninstalling Microsoft Teams over the summer. The best solutions in this crisis, just like the best relationships, the best partnerships and the best new operating models will lock in for the longer term and pay dividends wherever they work.

And it's the charities that find and harness those solutions, that are willing to tear through or tear up their plans and budgets, to redirect their effort and investment in the coming months to properly solve these new problems, in innovative, collaborative, sustainable ways, rather than constantly fighting fires and scraping by, they are the ones that will stay the course through this marathon, and they’re the ones that will come out of this far stronger than they went in.

Martyn Drake is founder of the management consultancy firm Binley Drake Consulting

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