Planning for change in 2021

14th December 2020

Be a frog not a butterfly

Around this time last year, our clients were adding finishing touches to their annual plans, presenting them to their leadership team, and sharing them with their partners, just as they do every year. As usual, we heard about the product and service launches, the rebranding programmes and the campaigns that should have shaped 2020 for our clients and thus for us.

But almost as soon as the year started, things changed. During the panic and shut-down of March and April, our clients had to go back to the drawing board. Long-term plans were accelerated, other programmes were shelved, campaign objectives were changed, all with very short notice. ‘Normal’ planning felt redundant as businesses wrestled with the impact of COVID. We were no different. It felt like our only hope of survival was to hunker down, to make some quick decisions about how we operate, and to ride the situation out as best we could.

Fairly quickly though, things stabilised, and we, along with many others, began figuring out how to operate in the context of a global pandemic. We made tentative, short-term plans, and we’ve gradually built the business back into good shape.

Some of our clients are still not out of the woods, others have done very well out of 2020, but stable or not, they, and we, are back in planning mode for next year. And it feels like the only game in town is transformation, ideally of the digital variety, and ideally happening very quickly. Here are just a few examples:

“Business has been fluid, fast moving and subject to extreme market conditions for many years now. The pace of change is remarkable and shows no sign of letting up. But there’s nothing like the disruption of a global pandemic to refocus an organisation’s digital transformation priorities.”

“The pandemic has provided the perfect time for the industry to make good on its intention of true digital transformation, which somehow got lost in the mix.”

“70% of businesses in Germany, Austria and Switzerland expect the Coronavirus pandemic to accelerate the pace of digital transformation.”

But is transformation the only strategic choice to make going into 2021, and even if it is, should it be digital by default? I’m not so sure.

First, ‘digital transformation’ itself is a term that has become so broad it’s almost meaningless. It’s been applied to everything from an increased focus on digital advertising to the spinning up of digital products and services to the complete reinvention of the business, from how customers engage to how HR is managed to how the supply chain is optimised. Seemingly, if a business does more digital stuff, it’s now called a transformation.

Second, (digital) transformation often doesn’t work. McKinsey and others have demonstrated that up to 70% of large-scale root-and-branch change programmes (the correct definition) don’t meet their intended objectives because they are poorly defined, poorly executed, lack executive sponsorship, or just run out of steam. It seems that re-inventing a business is just really, really difficult. Given the difficulty of reinvention and the 70% failure rate then, it might just be worth considering other strategic options.

Third, new projects are often dreamed up based on whatever is flavour of the month with consultants, investors and journalists. Business leaders are just as likely to suffer ‘shiny new object syndrome’ as anyone else, and for the last two or three years the shiny new object has been digital transformation. A decision to transform is often made for reasons that aren’t very strategic at all.

So the question remains, how should businesses plan for 2021? Digital transformation might be the right strategy to adopt, but it would be good to know that with some certainty.

Here’s a framework developed by FromHereOn that might help:

The animals are there for a reason. Pufferfish change rapidly to survive an existential threat. Birds adapt to suit changes in environment, frogs evolved to thrive in air as well as water, and butterflies transform irreversibly, becoming something else with a completely different purpose.

All four change responses are equally valid in a business context.

A business in survival mode changes dramatically, and quickly, but retains its identity and operates with the assumption that it will revert to its previous state if it survives. In 2020, what many are calling transformation is in fact just survival.

(Source: Not all change is the same: the nature of transformation, FromHereOn)

A business typically needs to adapt to maintain performance in response to a localised change. This could be a new market opportunity or a change in the competitive landscape requiring a change in capability. Change happens gradually and concurrently with normal, day-to-day work, and is usually driven through self-contained projects.

Business evolution happens in response to ongoing, everyday but nonetheless deep-rooted changes in the environment in which the business operates. In marketing terms, evolution might be driven by slowly-changing consumer preferences for example, resulting in new communications approaches or new product and services launches. Evolution should therefore be the modus operandi for any successful, stable business.

Which leaves transformation. To quote FromHereOn, “Transformation is a disruptive process for your business because it involves a change of identity. You’re reimagining the current business as something else entirely while being driven by a bold, new vision…Successful transformation requires a programme of projects designed to change most parts of the business.”. In other words, it’s radical, it’s difficult, it’s long-term, and it’s most successful when it’s driven by a change of vision for the business as a whole.

I’m not sure how much of the COVID-related change happening now is happening because the business has developed a bold, new vision, and I’d bet that much of the planning for 2021 under the banner of ‘transformation’ isn’t vision-driven either. More likely, it’s still a matter of survival or perhaps now of evolution, and as such it’s probably a better, more strategically appropriate response to the environment we find ourselves in.

As for the agency, we’ve spent the last three years addressing digital challenge and opportunity both back and front of house. Most of our operational infrastructure, from HR to finance to project management to documentation is created, managed and archived entirely in the cloud. 75%+ of our output is digital in thinking and execution. And we continue to invest in digital capability. It’s been a managed evolution rather than a transformation though; we’re still a strategic and creative advertising agency, just one with more operational efficiency across the board, and more digital capability where our clients need it.

To come back to the model, we were a pufferfish briefly this year, making quick, dramatic changes to survive. Most businesses were. As unsexy as it sounds though we’re now back to being a frog, evolving to suit the changing environment in a manageable, incremental way. Butterflies, the perfect metaphor for transformation, are wonderful. We’d all love to be a butterfly. The transformation they represent is exciting, but when all’s said and done, butterflies don’t eat frogs. It’s the other way round.

Nick Stewart

Head of Strategy