As the UK’s commercial recovery from the pandemic gets underway, business experts have warned that this latest phase of tackling Covid-19 could be even more challenging than the one before it.

In a new report, enterprise support network Be the Business points out that leaders are moving on from taking big decisions that were forced upon them by the initial emergency, and heading into an era where all the decisions are in their hands – with no set timescales to guide them.

During the first few months of lockdown, Be the Business convened a variety of forums and roundtables, reaching some 350,000 businesspeople, and conducted a survey answered by around 1,530 small firms. Their findings show that, in the space of just three months, UK enterprises have accomplished a staggering three years’ worth of innovation.

According to the report:

  • 22% of firms have introduced new services for customers;
  • a similar percentage have brought in new processes and/or identified and targeted new customers;
  • 18% have introduced a new product;
  • 23% plan to introduce new products as time goes on, and
  • 27% are looking to introduce new services.

But at the crux of the report – entitled A Third, A Third, A Third – Be the Business found that UK firms have segmented into three, distinct types, each constituting roughly a third of the enterprise landscape:

  • Innovators (31%) – firms that have already pivoted their products, services and business models in efforts to adjust to the new circumstances;
  • Stickers (33%) – those that have made no significant changes over the past few years and have no plans to do so going forward, and
  • Undecided (36%) – those that have implemented new initiatives to a limited extent, and are open to further change, but are uncertain about the future and therefore not ready to execute any dramatic change plans.

As an example of the latter group, the report cites memcom: a provider of recruitment services and events for the non-profit sector. While lockdown completely wiped out its live conferences, the firm switched to an online model that has attracted almost four times the number of delegates. It is now taking time to carefully think through its next move and reimagine its services as the recovery progresses.

What should leaders be attentive to, and what sort of factors should they bear in mind, as they attempt to calibrate, adjust and adapt their decision-making in line with the developing recovery?

The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “It’s often quite useful to think of the ‘a third, a third, a third’ model, because it reminds us that there are some people who we really don’t need to worry about, and others whose minds and processes are very difficult to change. So really, our energy and attention should be devoted to the third group – in this case, the Undecided – because we want them to become Innovators.”

She notes: “There are so many examples from the past three months of small firms who have innovated, pivoted and changed their business models. They’ve thought differently about how they can deliver their services or, in some cases, delivered new services. And that absolutely requires a different mindset.

“But the entrepreneurs who will be most successful are those who are closest to their customers. They’re listening to what their customers want – and rather than thinking of themselves in a sort of static way as providers of certain products or services, they’re solving problems on their customers’ behalf: ‘What problems do our customers have, and how can we help them, given our own capabilities?’”

Cooper points out: “In addition to that customer focus, another hallmark of a firm that’s cut out for survival is one that takes a bit of time to think differently about what it does: ‘What are we good at? And how can we be better?’ The best innovations will come from the creative ideas of staff who are working collaboratively and thinking together. Artificial intelligence is not yet at a stage where it is able to make the connections necessary to instruct leaders on which steps they should take. Only humans can do that.

“We must also pay attention to lessons learned from things that have gone wrong. In those scenarios, we often go into firefighting mode – ‘That shouldn’t have happened… what can we do differently next time?’ – which can be beneficial if we’re enlightened enough not to instantly start blaming people.”

She adds: “Overall, the advice here must be for leaders to think: ‘What made us successful? What were the factors that enabled us to innovate in the first place? How did we listen to each other? How did we move out of times of despondency into times of optimism? What were the steps we took to celebrate those particular watersheds and hold on to the positivity they provided?’ I would think that invariably, what would come through in the answers to those questions is the all-important influence of human capital. That’s where all the ingenuity has come from.

“So when we’re looking to cut costs – as many enterprises will be – let’s be really careful before we get rid of our genuinely greatest assets: the creative, inspirational and innovative minds of the people who work in our organisations and have a thorough understanding of our customers.”

For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on decision makin