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Even before Covid-19, many leaders often commented that we were experiencing a disruptive business climate. Oh, little did we know. This climate has often been called VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. The phrase started with the U.S. Military to describe the new world order or rather disorder after the Cold War.

We got hit with extreme VUCA: the pandemic. So how has our approach to partnering changed and what might partnering look like once we are past it, whenever that happens? A lot has changed, and business leaders should be intentional about what changes have been positive that we should retain, and what changes we want to say good riddance to.

I see the impact of the pandemic as a series of forcing functions.

The Shutdown

For some of us, the shutdowns meant working from home. Web meetings replaced travel. Pre-pandemic, some partner managers I know said they spent 20-30 weeks a year on the road. Most are greatly relieved they don’t have “that much” travel, but they also feel they need face-to-face interactions at least some of the time.

Economic Stress

The big shutdown affected many, many businesses. This impact extended to all workers, whether you worked from home or not, just because of the uncertainty of it all.

As changes in business demands became apparent, some industries cratered; others thrived. Travel, hospitality, and live entertainment (concerts, sports, theaters) were shut down. Anything from home exploded. E-commerce surged: The pandemic pushed the shift to e-commerce by five years. Digital health portals experienced significant growth over just a couple of weeks. Gaming and live stream video strained many of our home networks.

If you had a solution for any of the “gainers,” you were overwhelmed with demand. If you did not, could you pivot? And how fast?

Preserving The Ecosystem

Companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM recognized that a swift recovery was not going to be possible if they had to rebuild a partner ecosystem and not just restart it. They invested in their partners during this period, offering extended payment terms, financing, free training, and certification online, and equipping partners to pivot into those growth areas stimulated by the pandemic: work from home technology, digital health, e-commerce, etc.

Warp Speed

Alliances were forced to react to business changes at light speed. But for the pharmaceutical industry, it was literally a life-and-death situation in how fast they could deliver.

In my experience, pharma is highly regulated, highly risk-averse and not known for speed. Vaccines can normally take many years to develop and approve. Because of the urgency to get a viable vaccine out to people, there were significant changes to how they would normally manage a research and development alliance.

Steve Twait was leading the collaboration between Oxford and AstraZeneca to develop, manufacture and distribute one of the Covid-19 vaccines. He relates an example where a decision requiring steering committee approval would normally be put on the agenda for the next meeting even if that was six weeks out. In the new operating model, they would call the steering committee meeting for the next day. And decision-makers would clear their calendars to be there because of the priority and urgency of their mission.

Digital Transformation

We also saw a massive acceleration in digital transformation (DX) as businesses stepped up their efforts in providing digital experiences to their customers who switched to buying online and to streamline operation with the changes in workforce.

DX has been greatly accelerated across the world and across all industries as companies raced to provide digital experiences to the customers and to streamline their supply operations through technology.

DX are, of course, ecosystem plays for any industry and especially for the technology that spans all of them. DX has challenged businesses and their partners to collaborate more effectively and with renewed speed. What happens when a fast-moving industry has to move even faster? They do!

Finding Opportunities In The Chaos

If business as usual no longer exists, then what are the opportunities going forward? Some partners found new opportunities through innovation. In my conversations with leaders in manufacturing, they told me about how they quickly reinvented their offer to optimize workflow while maintaining social distancing for workers.

Many companies pivoted to help create ventilators, masks and other supplies during the pandemic, often working together with others to make a difference.

What does post-pandemic partnering look like? 

Here is my take based on the lessons learned: It has become clear how vital face-to-face human interaction is. But we have also gained a more pragmatic perspective on how much can be done remotely and to work to achieve the right balance.

As businesses become more connected and more ecosystem-centric, investing in the vibrancy and capacity of the partner ecosystem is paramount. Streamlining collaboration processes to embrace speed and efficiency is extremely important, and so is the ability to innovate and meet the biggest challenges with great speed.

While all of these takeaways will improve our ability to collaborate more effectively going forward, the ability to innovate is one of the capabilities I truly hope we carry forward into the new normal as we face new challenges in a VUCA world.