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Companies must help 'accelerate through the curve'

IN A severe health crisis that unites us in our common humanity and vulnerability, businesses are grappling with how to simultaneously preserve operational continuity, protect the welfare of their employees and their families, and contribute at a societal level to mitigate the real health and economic risks faced by countries, communities and individuals. Companies that view this challenge strategically and proactively are likely to come out stronger and better positioned for the road ahead.

While attempting to juggle multiple priorities in the midst of the immediate challenge, the natural instinct of many business leaders is to take a reactive posture. In a time of crisis, this is understandable. Focusing on how to put in place sound policies designed to protect the health and safety of employees, reduce unnecessary costs, and troubleshoot supply chain disruption all makes sense.

As the vice-president for a consulting firm that works with some of the world's largest companies in two dozen markets in the Asia-Pacific, I would argue that as the crisis evolves, it is critical not just to react, but rather to take a proactive, strategic posture. What does this mean and what should it look like?

The metaphor that comes to mind is that of a car rounding a curve. While intuition would suggest that one should ride the brakes as hard as possible, physics counter-intuitively tells us that it's safer and more effective to tap the gas and accelerate. Doing so increases traction and enables one to further accelerate coming out the other side.

COUNTER-INTUITIVE ACTION

To apply this metaphor, businesses must similarly take counter-intuitive action during the Covid-19 crisis by accelerating through the curve. While accelerating too hard will lead to derailment, taking a forward-leaning posture is highly preferable to simply slamming on the brakes.

Let's take this from metaphor to reality by exploring the types of actions entailed in "accelerating through the curve" given the current uncertainties businesses face.

First, businesses must be altruistic rather than myopic in their outlook during this time. As governments struggle and in many cases falter in effectively responding to the immediate crisis, companies are uniquely positioned to step to the fore in providing critical supplies and services, filling in existing gaps, and potentially innovating new solutions. While there may be short-term costs involved in this approach, doing everything a company can to support the saving of lives and the mitigation of economic hardship will prove to be a worthwhile and critical investment.

Second, businesses must refine and communicate their narrative to key stakeholders, keeping in mind that stakeholders are human too - with real pressures, both professional and personal. The actions that companies take now will define how stakeholders - including those in government, as well as customers and consumers - view them for years to come. External messages that resonated pre-crisis may no longer apply, and in fact, may come across as tone-deaf. Businesses should think about what the Covid-19 crisis means for the company's values, identity and business model and refine and proactively communicate their narrative accordingly.

Third, companies must tailor their narratives to the local context. While Covid-19 is a global phenomenon, each market is experiencing different timelines and degrees of severity. Culture also plays a strong role in determining the parameters and effectiveness of social distancing and other public health measures. Actions and messages should be crafted thoughtfully in a local context - one size does not fit all.

PROACTIVE APPROACH

Taking a proactive and strategic approach now should ideally make the transition to a "new normal" easier and more fluid and in turn mitigate economic pain as the acuity of the crisis abates over time. So in addition to "flattening the curve", companies must help countries where they work "accelerate through the curve".

  • The writer is the vice president of BowerGroupAsia, a government affairs and public policy consulting firm that works with some of the world's biggest companies across the Asia-Pacific.

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