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Resilience in Uncertain Times: Insights From Global Leaders

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5 minute read

With so many global challenges converging at once, businesses face unprecedented tension between present demands and future goals. Smart business leaders are formulating responses that will fortify their resilience and sustain growth. But many are also losing sleep over the monumental task of navigating through ambiguity in order to successfully adapt and thrive.

IDEO’s global client and partner network gives us a unique view into how organizations are responding to rapid change. Recently, we decided to ask our clients what problems are keeping them up at night, and what promising solutions keep them leading with optimism.

We reached out to 55 global business leaders spanning 25 cities and 18+ industries. What we heard is that while uncertainty isn’t new, there have never been so many compounding causes for concern. A decade ago, it was easy to see what triggered the recession. Now, volatility surrounds us—in politics, markets, regulations, the environment, and society at large.

Leaders cited increasingly complex consumer expectations and interactions. They pointed out tension between fueling growth and tightening belts, and pressure to sustain their core businesses while spinning up new growth horizons. And they noted growing difficulty attracting and retaining the right talent.

Leaders agree that growth is still the primary business objective, but increasingly understand that the methods and mindsets to achieve growth have changed. In particular, it’s becoming more important and impactful to consider people—customers, employees, shareholders, and stakeholders—when making business decisions. A human-centered approach to strategy and innovation makes it possible to turn obstacles into opportunities.

How do leaders become more human-centered? By looking both inward and outward to identify the needs and conditions that drive innovation. Inwardly, it’s about evolving leadership qualities to encompass a combination of creativity, strategy, technology, and soft skills. Outwardly, it means testing tangible solutions with customers to inform execution and scale.

These shifts can unlock trapped value, fuel growth, and build trust and loyalty.

Our research identified six key tensions leaders face now. While tension can create stress, it can also—when approached thoughtfully—enable sustained balance between opposing priorities. In our client network, we see numerous examples of inspirational leaders and organizations learning to strike that balance, and in turn finding a new way forward that leads to profitable business growth.

1. Improving efficiencies while exploring new growth opportunities

In 2014, The Times and The Sunday Times worked with IDEO to define and design a new digital publishing strategy. The decision to move to four editions a day—and stop competing with round-the-clock breaking news—freed up tremendous resources to focus on big stories, and balance efficiencies with growth. Since moving to online editions in 2016, subscriptions are up 15% (April 2018) in a market where most content is free.

2. Balancing the needs of shareholders and stakeholders

Intercorp is a Peruvian conglomerate whose strategy focuses on providing Peru’s growing middle class with high quality and accessible healthcare services, competitive education, and financial service offers. In 2010, IDEO started working with Intercorp to design and launch Innova, a low-cost, for-profit education model built on the needs of families and aiming to make Peru an education leader in Latin America. Innova has become a successful business that investors are confident to back and scale. Innova has opened 63 schools in Peru, which will serve 52,000 students by 2020. They also recently opened the first Innova school in Mexico, welcoming 1100 students, and plan to open three more schools in 2020.

3. Rethinking data collection to unlock actionable insight

Ascensia Diabetes Care, a global healthcare company, has been a leader in diabetes treatment for over 70 years. In 2017, Ascensia set its sights on moving the company beyond producing blood glucose metering devices, to become a comprehensive health support provider for people living with diabetes. IDEO’s team worked with Ascensia to leverage real-time data from people with diabetes to identify behavior patterns, then share that information on demand with certified diabetes educators (CDEs). The team used the insights from the data to prototype various ways of connecting those health educators to people with diabetes, ultimately enabling a different kind of patient-provider interaction through live remote support and a suite of digital tools.

4. Approaching talent acquisition as a strategic venture

In order to future-proof its business, Mitsui & Co., one of Japan’s largest investment and trading firms, believes that they need to build greater internal capabilities to start and launch new businesses of their own, instead of relying purely on their trading investments. To that end, they have partnered with IDEO to create Moon Creative Lab, an innovation hub aiming not only to launch new ventures but also to develop entrepreneurial talent and capabilities as a strategic asset for Mitsui’s future. IDEO is working with Mitsui to attract, hire, and onboard new talent with skills and backgrounds radically different from that of the parent organization.

5. Investing in culture to build purpose and values

Leaders at Europe’s largest online fashion retailer, Zalando, recognized that staying competitive would not just require new offers, but new ways of working internally. IDEO partnered with Zalando to rally teams around a renewed corporate purpose, to deliver a best-in-class fashion experience, generating a greater sense of engagement and pride in the company culture. Zalando has since become a European success story that has sustained a high level of growth. The number of active customers grew by more than 15% year over year as of August 2019.

6. Refocusing leadership from individual experts to collaborative teams

Ford has spent nearly 15 years steering its global enterprise toward design-led innovation. By integrating teams to include diverse expertise and setting up dedicated innovation labs, the company has reduced both time and money spent on new product development while becoming a leading player in future mobility solutions.

Outside of the corporate context, there is a need for learning and development programs that can teach these new leadership approaches. IDEO and Tsinghua University, an esteemed Chinese academic institution, have created a year-long program to guide and support executives who aspire to transform China’s economy. The goal is to cultivate a generation of collaborative, creative, and purpose-driven leaders, enabling the country’s transformation from “Made in China” to “Created in China.”

Special thanks to a global team of IDEO collaborators including Charles Hayes (Shanghai), Michael Hendrix (Cambridge), and Madison Mount (San Francisco).

Illustration by Tynan Collins

  • Sue Siddall

    IDEO Alum
    Sue Siddall helps organizations reinvent themselves and connect with consumers and employees in new and meaningful ways. She has over 25 years of experience working with clients across luxury, retail, hospitality, and the public sectors.
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