After the disruption of the last few years, leaders are now looking to move beyond emergency and survival modes to return to a growth orientated mindset. At the same time aspirations to ‘build back better’ and to learn from recent events present an ideal opportunity to further challenge assumptions as to where that growth can come from and how to attain it. The advice of ‘stick to your knitting’ – to go back to doing the things that made you successful might seem attractive and sensible – but now is the time to closely examine what your knitting actually is. What are the core competencies that make you, your teams and your businesses successful? The ability to step outside of the day-to-day context and examine these with fresh eyes can reveal exciting potential.
The global pandemic set off a bonfire of assumptions. Things that were ‘impossible’ were achieved; entire production lines were transformed in days to manufacture PPE and hand sanitiser; head-to-head competitors collaborated to make ventilators and new vaccines were created, tested and rolled out to millions in less than 2 years. Organisations of all type and all sizes discovered capabilities that they did not know they had. They demonstrated competencies that few months prior they may not have recognised. The question, as leaders hunt for new growth, is why go back to old assumptions?
A traditional growth strategy looks at what you are good at doing and finds other attractive markets where it can be applied. Typically, if we are honest, this also meant looking at what your competitors were doing and try and do it better. Leaders and businesses are lured by attractive markets where others are already seeing high growth or margins. Growth comes from trying to engineer ways to make your knitting fit these new patterns.
Breakthrough leaders will learn from the recent crisis that by stepping outside of their day-to-day context they can discover the deeper competencies that lie beneath the business-as-usual knitting. This can be a deeper commitment to fundamental aspects that support the business, it could be values or cultural, but it will always unleash something more than just doing the same things faster, harder or for longer. Faced with the digital camera revolution, Fujifilm examined its core competencies in film manufacture and imaging technology and diversified into new markets that offset the massive decline in photographic film. Its shift to create new markets is regarded as one of the great transformations of the last decades. In the race to develop a COVID vaccine, AstraZeneca knew it had the process and supply-chain competency to quickly manufacture and distribute – and chose to partner with Oxford University to bolster its own virology science capabilities. Without this clear-eyed analysis neither business would have seen the success they have.
Your ‘knitting’ is less about what you do, and more about what you are as a business. Understanding that opens the door to breakthrough growth. No longer are attractive markets those which are adjacent or simply larger opportunities to do more of what you already do. Instead, they can become exciting undiscovered niches where your combination of values, culture and competency can have disproportionate impact. The application of Apple’s design ethic and technical innovation to the mobile phone handset market is probably the best-known example of leveraging core competencies to create an entirely new market. The iPhone is extraordinarily successful because of what Apple is,not because of what the product does.
In today’s rapidly changing markets and sectors competition can come from anywhere. But the flip side is that you can also compete on a much wider stage. The Pandemic demonstrated that we can all cast off limiting assumptions and radically transform in a very short space of time. Enforced and sudden changes of context were painful but did allow us to challenge assumptions and uncover deeper truths about what our core competencies really were.
As things return to some ‘new normal’ breakthrough leaders will retain this ability to declare commitment to deeply held, authentic values that inspire and drive new growth. Suddenly sticking to the knitting does not look like a return to mundane business-as-usual with the aspiration to just do more of it. Reassessing not only what you, your teams and our business are not only good at, but what you are passionate about and committed to will not only deliver growth in financial and commercial terms, but in the personal fulfilment of all those involved. If that can be the true legacy of the pandemic it would be a significant achievement for all!