Under siege, businesses can take lessons from military in crisis

April 29, 2020 by Stephen J. Thorne

A Plexiglass barrier protects a grocery store cashier in North Vancouver, B.C., on March 22.
Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Agility is the ability to adjust and adapt to changing circumstances. Militaries rely on agility in times of crisis. Agility is always at the heart of long-term business success too, and businesses are learning this anew in the time of coronavirus.

Officer cadets attend military college to learn the fundamentals of leadership and fighting strategy; enlisted ranks train repetitively until the skills to execute are second nature. But the battlefield, like life, is anything but predictable.

Success in battle, as in business and other endeavours, depends largely on one’s ability to adapt. You can’t teach agility by itself. It is largely a product of preparedness, resourcefulness and resilience.

In this time of illness, death, shutdowns and stay-at-home orders, with a public gripped by fear and caution, progressive businesses have mitigated some of the damage by adapting to the circumstances at hand and capitalizing on the opportunities that inevitably arise out of any crisis.

Some businesses have even thrived, finding themselves ideally positioned for what, on the surface, would appear to be a devastating set of circumstances.

Netflix, for example, announced April 21 that it added 15.77 million new paid subscribers globally over the previous three months, more than double the seven million it expected, as people sought ways to entertain themselves during lockdowns.

Even online scammers were adapting to the situation: latching on to the Netflix surge, fraud artists sent “urgent” emails to paid-up subscribers warning that service would be cut if “overdue” payments were not made immediately.

The pandemic has proven a boon to online, or mail-order, businesses too.

According to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is the only one of the world’s five richest people who hasn’t lost money in 2020. To the contrary, it was reported in mid-April that his wealth had increased by $26 billion since the pandemic closed many brick-and-mortar businesses.

Riding on the lab-coattails of COVID-19, Loblaws’ stock prices—the company owns a chain of grocery stores and Shoppers Drug Mart—rose 9.1 per cent in March alone as people stocked up for an expected lockdown. Likewise, sales at Sobeys and Safeway stores surged 37 per cent over a four-week period starting Feb. 28, when talk of quarantining and shutdowns started in earnest.

Stores have adapted to health concerns by installing Plexiglas shields at checkouts to maintain a form of social distancing and encourage staff and customers to feel more secure. Grocery store aisles have become directional in many places to minimize cramped encounters. Some are delivering grocery orders. And most are limiting store access to a designated number of shoppers at a time. Lineups are reminiscent of post-Soviet Russia.

Ever been looking for an item and tried to track down a service person in a Canadian Tire or Home Depot? Who hasn’t, right? Well, not these days. Now you must call or browse ahead, place your order, pay for it and pick it up curbside from an all-too-eager crew of readily available service folks.

Michaels, the arts-and-crafts supply store, has introduced a similar regimen while IKEA, the Swedish furniture and home-decor retailer, has closed to all but online delivery orders. In some areas, the electronic retailer Best Buy has set up tables at the door where customers place orders and runners retrieve them.

All these measures have quickly become routine to consumers, who increasingly cherish the opportunity just to get out of the house.

A woman in a protective face mask walks past a boarded-up shop in downtown Vancouver on April 20.
Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS
Other operations hit the ground running as the COVID-19 era dawned, simply capitalizing on their already existing progressive policies.

Many high-tech companies and some Canadian government departments have results-oriented work environments, or ROWE, in which staff were already working remotely at home before the pandemic hit. Under normal circumstances, the hours they put in were less important than the results they produced. Now, the practised strategy is paying off with almost-seamless efficiency.

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity—or VUCA—has been a watchword adopted by coaches and strategists in the business world from military teachings dating to 1987, when the term was first cited in documents at the United States Army War College and entered the school’s curriculum as descriptive of the battlefield or the global environment. It has particular relevance in the current circumstances.

“Volatility refers to the speed of change in an industry, market or the world in general,” Jeroen Kraaijenbrink wrote in Forbes Magazine in December 2018. “It is associated with fluctuations in demand, turbulence and short time to markets and it is well-documented in the literature on industry dynamism. The more volatile the world is, the more and faster things change.”

Uncertainty refers to the extent to which we can confidently predict the future.

“Part of uncertainty is perceived and associated with people’s inability to understand what is going on,” Kraaijenbrink wrote. “The more uncertain the world is, the harder it is to predict.”

Complexity refers to the number of factors that must be taken into account, their variety and the relationships between them.

“The more factors, the greater their variety and the more they are interconnected, the more complex an environment is. Under high complexity, it is impossible to fully analyze the environment and come to rational conclusions.

“The more complex the world is, the harder it is to analyze.”

Ambiguity refers to a lack of clarity about how to interpret something.

“A situation is ambiguous, for example, when information is incomplete, contradicting or too inaccurate to draw clear conclusions. More generally it refers to fuzziness and vagueness in ideas and terminology.

“The more ambiguous the world is, the harder it is to interpret.”

Agility, therefore, is always critical to battlefield, or business, success.

Of all the elements that contribute to it, preparedness is probably the most important. It requires foresight, planning and execution, wherever it is applied.

WearWell Garments in Stellarton, N.S., has increased production of health-care garments and masks for long-term care facilities in the province.

In addressing a pandemic, the onus is on governments and health-care systems to have stockpiles of supplies necessary to address such a crisis, to heed international warnings that such a threat is imminent, and to respond decisively.

More than governments, a notable pandemic success story has been the agility of businesses, including those which have adapted existing expertise and tooling to produce needed apparel and equipment, most of it without regulatory prompting.

The General Motors assembly plant in Oshawa, Ont., plans to produce a million masks a month at cost for the Canadian government amid a global shortage of medical supplies.

Brian’s Custom Sports near Leamington, Ont., made hockey goalie pads before the pandemic struck. Its clients have included NHL stars Felix Potvin and Patrick Roy. Now its employees are sewing bed sheets into disposable gowns for health-care workers.

“It seems to be big time a Canadian thing for everybody to band together as much as possible and do what we can do,” stitching supervisor Helen Guenther told CTV News. “People actually have a heart. You see that comes out in times like these.”

Nearly 5,000 small Canadian businesses have offered to retool their factory floors to provide critical personal protective equipment for medical workers amid looming supply shortages.

Dynamic Air Shelters of Grand Bank, N.L., has been manufacturing industrial shelters for the oil-and-gas industry for nearly two decades. Now it’s building emergency hospital and quarantine shelters. Lind Equipment, which produces lighting products for the military and mining operations, is now adapting their UV light systems to sterilize personal protection equipment in hospitals.

The Canadian military itself has proven agile in a broad range of circumstances—war fighting, disaster relief, search and rescue, even snow-shovelling.

Now, with much of the forces standing by and sheltering in place, Ontario and Quebec have called for military assistance in long-term care facilities as nursing homes in the two provinces report staggering mortality rates related to COVID-19.

The official death toll in Quebec had reached 1,134 by April 22, with more than 80 per cent in long-term care homes.

On April 27, Ontario reported outbreaks in 170 long-term care homes and that 671 deaths had occurred in long-term care.

The pandemic has revealed itself in what, to the average person, have been unexpected and devastating ways. Overcoming its challenges will require an agile mix of science, out-of-the-box thinking and decisive leadership.

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