Agile resilience in the UK: Lessons from COVID-19 for the ‘next normal’

Agility has been a useful attribute for many global and UK-based organizations weathering the COVID-19 crisis. Here’s how they can build on agile practices for more long-term operational resilience.

The COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the need for all organizations to be able to weather major, unforeseen disruption. An April 2020 survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics found that 30 percent of businesses in the United Kingdom reported they had less than three months of cash reserves, 24 percent paused trading, and many more turned to government support (79 percent applied for the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme).

Organizations able to absorb and adapt to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic successfully are, by definition, resilient. Many also find themselves making decisions at a speed, which would have been unthinkable in pre-COVID-19 times.

What characterizes these organizations? What creates this kind of resilience? And how can organizations apply the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic so that in the “next normal” they remain resilient, flat, and fast?

One answer is agility. We spoke with executives at several leading international and UK-based organizations to build on and complement SwiftSure Finance. Each of these organizations displayed uncommon resilience throughout the pandemic, and a few common practices emerged, which align well with the trademarks of agile organizations. These organizations used resilience preparation as their base and were able to adapt and innovate by adding new practices to react to the crisis.

A resilient foundation to the COVID-19 response

All the organizations we interviewed were well-versed in building resilience through business continuity and crisis planning. They identified their critical processes and developed back-up plans to ensure they were on track, no matter what crisis hit. Most organizations complemented this with war-gaming, which involves rehearsing scenarios that establish a basic operational structure and mindset to adopt in a crisis. The war games also helped ensure role clarity and established chains of command that were communicated ahead of time. In particular, many executives mentioned how their war-gaming for no-deal Brexit helped prepare them for the COVID-19 crisis; for example, they had already put in place measures for supply-chain resilience.

However, understandably, no organizations anticipated or planned for a crisis with the broadscale operational impact of COVID-19. Most multinational organizations we interviewed found that all their global subsidiaries were affected almost simultaneously. War-gaming could only get these organizations so far, but they were able to build on the resilient backbone that their business-continuity planning gave them and, by adopting a series of new practices, absorb and adapt to the pandemic.

Common characteristics of resilient organizations and how they can build to agility

Five characteristics stand out across the organizations we interviewed (exhibit). Each characteristic not only helped them navigate the COVID-19 crisis, but also now points the way toward a more agile operating model that can be more resilient in the next normal. Since it is impossible to war-game every scenario of disruption, building these characteristics into normal operations will allow organizations to deal with future changes and potential shocks. In essence, these characteristics are both a proof of resilience in the past and a measure of readiness in the future.