The COVID Crisis was not a disruption—it was an accelerant.

Leading transformation in large organizations is tough. It requires patience, persistence and can feel like an uphill struggle against a system that can’t get out of its own way to evolve. Millions of dollars, hours of effort and energy are poured into businesses to encourage revolution, yet how many true stories of success do we see?

Consider your own business. What has had the biggest impact in transforming your organization to date? Was it your business strategy? Strong stakeholder support? An organization-wide SAFe implementation? Or was it shaped by something you never anticipated, less planned for?

What we will share is how crisis can accelerate transformative change—more than the best laid out transformation plans—because it’s a shock to the system to remind it that it’s alive, a living entity with more latent skills than leaders recognize, or fail to realize.

We can’t think our way to a new culture, we need to act our way there. Crises accelerate transformative action because they require a response. By taking action—especially in uncertainty—we create results, and results are what we learn from to inform decisions, course-correct, and take better action in the new future. It’s a counterintuitive approach, because the nature of uncertainty means we don’t actually know what to do. But paradoxically, the only way to get the information we need is through action—taking your best guess, starting small, and learning your way through.

This article co-author by Jana Werner, Head of Transformation at Tesco Bank and Barry O’Reilly, Business Advisor, Entrepreneur and Author focuses on accelerating transformation during crisis—which a specific focus on the experiences of Tesco’s Bank, the financial services group of the UK largest retailer.

Article highlights:

  • Why the COVID-crisis is an accelerant, not a disruption.

  • Why leading companies have progressed 10 years in 10 weeks—and what changes need to be made to sustain such pace?

  • The 11 mindset and behavior shifts observed in Tesco Bank and other organizations to accelerate transformation.

  • What leaders must unlearn and relearn to emerge stronger from the COVID-crisis.

  • How to systemize innovation throughout your entire organization (rather than a single initiative or team).

  • Deep-dive examples from Tesco Bank and other businesses, how teams were able to deliver above expectations—especially in highly regulated, complex operating environments.

  • Checklist to accelerate your business transformation and increase organizational speed.


The Covid crisis is not a disruption, it is an accelerant.

Leading transformation in large organizations is tough. It requires patience, persistence and can feel like an uphill struggle against a system that can’t get out of its own way to evolve. Millions of dollars, hours of effort and energy are poured into businesses to encourage revolution, yet how many true stories of success do we see?

Consider your own business. What has had the biggest impact on transforming your organization to date? Was it your business strategy? Strong stakeholder support? An organization-wide SAFe implementation? Or shaped by something you never anticipated, less planned for?

What we will share is how crisis can accelerate transformative change—more than the best laid out transformation plans—because it’s a shock to the system to remind it that it’s alive, a living entity with more latent skills than leaders recognize, or fail to realize.

We can’t think our way to a new culture, we need to act our way there. Crises accelerate transformative action because they require a response. By taking action—especially in uncertainty—we create results, and results are what we learn from to inform decisions, course-correct, and take better action in the new future.

It’s a counterintuitive approach because the nature of uncertainty means we don’t actually know what to do. But paradoxically, the only way to get the information we need is through action—taking your best guess, starting small, and learning your way through.

Being Our Best In A Crisis

Crises can bring out the best in people. Clarity of mission connects teams to customer outcomes and drives intrinsic motivation—which in turn drives collaboration to succeed in high pressure, high tempo situations.

Over the last weeks it is remarkable to see Ford and Dyson producing ventilators, the local hardware store is suddenly online with a new YouTube channel on how to make home improvements, fitness sessions playing out across Zoom, and the UK National Health Service hold patient appointments online. 

In one Financial Services organization we’ve been able to implement an increase to contactless card payment limits in days where the previous increase took months.  We stood up a work from home solution for call centre staff, automated processes and relieved pressure on teams having to manually capture customer data over the phone in 3.5 weeks—a record for service delivery and a credit to the teams and individuals who made this possible.

Rapid responses to change, shorter lead times and frequent iterations are the signals of success for high performance organizations

So how is this incredible speed possible, when it wasn’t before? Have we found some amazing capabilities that we did not know we had?  If so, why haven’t we done this before?  And how can we harness this newfound strength into a sustainable way of working post crisis to accelerate our transformations?

In Uncertainty Our Instinct Is Agility

What we have observed—especially during the COVID-19 crisis—is that teams and leaders are either intuitively applying lean and agile principles to navigate uncertainty, or crisis unshackles experienced teams to apply these principles where before they were bound by bureaucracy, siloed thinking and risk aversion.

In short, many organizations are now truly innovating their ways of working and ways of delivering—experiencing meaningful change and achieving extraordinary results.

Accelerating Transformation

So why are we instinctively transitioning to more experimental, iterative and adaptive methods in the face of uncertainty? What is so different to the big transformation and continuous improvement programmes that spend years of effort and millions of dollars, often with much less success?

Characteristics of High Performance Cultures

Speaking to teams and leaders about their experiences over the last pandemic weeks – 11 themes have emerged, with key phrases repeated over and over… and over.

1. Purpose & Priority over Innumerous Competing Goals

People highlighted the fact that COVID-19 focussed and bonded them over a tangible, compelling, and shared purpose, because it’s easy to understand, well communicated across all layers of organizations, and directly connected to helping customers. An urgent and clear call to action, with success crisply defined. The purpose felt “real” and tapped into their intrinsic motivation.  Connecting with customers by tackling challenging problems and seeing their solution help them succeed brings the best out of teams.

COVID-19 also led to radical organization wide reduction of initiatives, a forcing-function to focus teams on a shared small set of priorities, where otherwise organizations battle many competing priorities, confusion and context switching.

The challenge facing many executives is how to keep it simple with a succinct set of objectives beyond business continuity, but incorporate growth. It is easy to add more that must be done. What’s hard is staying focused, and prioritizing three or four statements instead of endless more.

2. Outcomes & Problems over Output & Solutions

With fewer, crisper priorities every single person across an entire organization had a clear line of sight of the problems to solve, outcomes to achieve and could directly align their effort to customer impact.

Many felt a meaningful impact in their work, where project-based milestones, pay-for-performance rewards and other extrinsic motivations rarely create such a compelling purpose with tightly connected results.

The subtle yet powerful shift to outcome-based measures of success — reducing and resolving customer issues — over traditional output-based deliverables of being on time, budget and scope had a pronounced impact on productivity and employee satisfaction.

When you give people problems to solve over solutions to execute you engage their creativity, commitment and drive. It makes high performers wonder why every day can’t be that way? Many will not want to go back to the way it was before — and if it does — might seek to find somewhere else its modus operandi.

3. Empowerment & Self Organization over Silos & Hierarchies

When people were given problems to solve, outcomes to achieve and a compelling purpose to do so, they reported that it was easier to proactively reach out to colleagues, irrespective of functional silos or titles to get work done.
Hierarchy faded into the background when crisis brought people together around a problem. It became easier to identify who was in the best position to make the calls, based on the circumstances to help customers and colleagues in need. 

This created truly self-organizing cross functional teams who were able to collaborate on-demand, short-cutting silos and slow design-by-committee decision-making forums between requirement management and solution design.
For instance, bringing Engineering and Fraud teams together from the start—allowing each side to understand and debate their requirements, security concerns, delivery options and constraints from the beginning. They co-created practical solutions on the spot. 

The existing processes conditioned teams to stay in their lane, sequence work with requirements first, solutioning second and endless sign offs and reviews at each stage. The organizational structure encouraged separation and contract collaboration, meaning solutions were often suboptimal or at least slower to deliver from being designed in silos. 

Can we encourage this end to end collaboration post crisis – culturally and structurally – for instance through establishment of cross functional outcomes that teams huddle around?

4. Right Sized Governance over Process & Bureaucracy

When a culture of red tape prevails the appetite to own decisions shrivels — processes and controls take its place. Purpose, problems and urgency to deliver call such bureaucracy into question.

As the teams sought to ship smaller, more focused features to customers a one-size-fit-all system slowed them down. Smaller, meant safer and easier to review. Suddenly, due to the urgency of the crisis fast track governance gates were created and unnecessary steps removed while maintaining high levels of security.

“Smaller is safer” is a counter intuitive system that many struggle to understand until they see it in action. For example, rather than estimating- drafting- circulating- signing off- submitting- committee reviewing- debating- challenging- approving- finding and providing cost codes to obtain funding, teams were given ownership of their budgets—with approved spend on an initiative up to a certain limit use as they saw fit, and as needed to deliver a solution, like Product funding. When people have ownership of their decisions, accountability skyrockets and provides greater control over telling employees how and what investments are made, or must be signed off by which manager.

On all levels of the organization people started to question many of the standard processes, and we have heard this from colleagues in other large enterprises, too. The organization was able to appropriate its risk appetite rather than applying a one size fits all approach to risk management—tailored to worst case scenarios and monumental program deliveries.

Is this an opportunity to enable delivery and oversight teams to continue to collaborate closely post crisis with smaller checks at higher frequency? Can you continue a collaborative approach between delivery teams and policy makers to jointly consider how to appropriate processes, based on the positive experience of smaller deliverables during crisis. And in the longer term, how much governance can you convert to self-serve or automate?

5. Reduce Risk To Innovate over Eradicating Risk & Reward

For many traditional organizations—especially in highly regulated environments—risk is first and foremost a protective role, function, or department, not an identified opportunity to make a calculated call and find an 

edge over the competition. Separate functions exist to eradicate risk, protect the business and customers — and as a side effect can eradicate much chance for reward too.

High performing product teams welcome risk, owning it, testing it and when necessary reducing it. They understand that in the uncertainty and unknown edges of risk is the greatest opportunity to innovate. Empowered teams recognize and wish to take a little risk to gain potential large rewards by delighting customers with amazing experiences. This shift in risk thinking through close collaboration and incredible support with the risk teams during crisis-induced uncertainty was one of our greatest breakthroughs.

This dilemma inadvertently puts risk takers and risk assurance in opposing camps, managing risks as separate governance processes in RAID logs, reviews, and reports which are assessed by assurance functions rather than managing these as part of a delivery backlog which the product team feels accountable for as part of their feature development.

It only takes 1 hand in a 30 step value chain to be raised, for an initiative to stop in its tracks, but 30 to say yes. eSignatures as insufficient assurance for authorization in business—especially finance—is a classic example.

Sticking with the stale status-quo wet signature has caused frustration for customers as well as internal banking innovators (a business by the way that makes its money managing risk).

In this stand-off between policy vs product managers, so many businesses were stuck in the mindset that “the existing system says” thus expecting people to risk safety and leave their homes during stay-at-home orders to sign documents in stores.

Eventually a developer created a script to make a PDF look like it’s printed, signed, and then scanned again to send back to banks. Because digital signatures are still not accepted in many places while a signed and scanned printout is for assurance reasons. Now you can save trees, ink, time, and bypass the bureaucracy with this script.

The lesson in this is, if you don’t innovate, someone will do it in a way you can’t control—which do you think is less risky?

The reason smart companies win is they balance the reduction of risk with the rewards of delighting customers in new and interesting ways. Startups aren’t necessarily more innovative—they have a greater appetite to take risk to capture market share.

High performance organizations invest in creating responsive systems and technology platforms that enable them to learn fast and adapt based on the information they discover in real-time. They don’t sacrifice speed for stability, they have both.

It’s easy to say “no” and hide behind regulation in high impact, high consequence domains. However this argument is no longer valid. Do you process more payments than Amazon? Handle more transactions than ApplePay? Crisis teaches us that risk eradication can be unlearned and solutions increase in quality and delivery speed when policy makers collaborate with product leaders.

6. Small Slices over Big Bang releases

Another key change in behaviour we observed was the instinctive shift to smaller batches of work, shipping frequently with shorter feedback loops.

Due to the urgency of the crisis responding to the situation, alleviating issues for customers and colleagues had to happen fast. This encouraged teams to ship smaller sequenced changes to build, measure and learn what worked and didn’t — respond and adapt to the uncertainty.

For instance, when Engineering learned that call centre staff were inundated with queries and spending the majority of their time manually documenting customer information, they pulled the relevant parties together, prioritised the smallest slices of functionality that would provide the biggest impact to staff and customers, and shipped them quickly. They didn’t try to solve everything — a whole process end to end — but solve enough to see how their effort affected the call centre impact.

By shipping smaller slices of functionality, they realized that as the part-automation of some processes created second order problems in their systems of record. By starting small, they
learned fast that this was happening, quickly established the issues and now iterate their solutions to succeed.

Smaller batches of work might not give you the all singing and dancing end to end solution, and leave you with follow on problems to solve, but they allow you to respond sooner — especially in the face of uncertainty. Big batches of work, with big bang releases and slow feedback cycles inhibit teams from learning fast what works or doesn’t. Smaller, safer, sooner is the key to getting started with change.

Post crisis, can your teams consider how to split your big releases and multi-year programmes into smaller iterative deliverables? Of course this can be challenging where route to production and supplier engagement models are not conducive to this way of working. Can you start tackling these systemic challenges one by one to enable new ways of working?

7. Sharing Information over Slide Decks

Due to the tempo and speed of iteration, an organization wide addiction to slide decks as the source for all communication and decision ceased. Teams set up short daily showcases and exec conversations at much higher frequency than the usual monthly governance boards, to share information, request help or highlight decisions made.

Slide decks, paper proposals and steering group sessions all take a significant investment to prepare, avoiding “difficult” conversations by socializing and re-socializing in advance of exec meetings, deferring decisions, requesting a raft of meeting minutes to document, correcting, amending and signing them off—the majority of which few people read.

In addition, colleagues fed back that the monthly cadence of exec governance meetings are challenging, especially if your request/proposal gets pushed back you need to wait another whole month. The speed of these cycles determines the heartbeat of the organization. A higher frequency reduced paper production and sped up decision making and hence delivery speed.

In regulated industries many decisions need to be formally recorded, hence we experiment with leaner systems to prepare, capture and store decisions in our systems of record. For instance, a photo of a “thumbs up”, a recorded video meeting, or a concise decision dairy and logs were all added as options for auditability.

Leaders (and anyone interested) know how, when and where to get the information they might want or give direction to the team as needed. Teams spent less time status reporting and more time exploring potential solutions to problems, while sharing what has been learned.

Sticking with the monthly steering group is easy. But we have now learned smarter, leaner systems of reviewing and sharing information, reporting of progress against outcomes, recording decisions, and experienced that higher frequency exec governance increases the metabolic rate of the organization. Can we hold on to these learnings post crisis and reorganize our exec governance cadence, meeting inputs and outputs?

8. Servant Leadership over Command and Control

Where previously executives and senior leaders were expected to know the answer, and get pretty much every call correct, it has now in the face of crisis uncertainty become acceptable for executives not to know the answer. In fact, many started to state the fact that they didn’t and instead support their teams to find out what the answer might be.

Leaders are making themselves available, being vulnerable and authentic — providing quick decisions and removing blockers for their teams when they can. They ask, “How can I help” over handing out actions to be performed or distracting teams from delivery with continual requests for status.

Shifting command to the hands of the people who are closest to the problem, allowing them to own the decisions and design the solutions can be uncomfortable. It takes courage from leaders to let go of the wheel. However, taking the step can create more control. By working in small, fast feedback cycles steps can be designed as safe to fail. When uncertainty is high favor short cycles, this allows both team and leaders to course-correct quickly based on what they learn.

We’ve all realized when and how to trust one another, and that weighing a pig more frequently doesn’t make it fatter.

9. Leading With Excellence over Fear of Failure

People reported a shift in culture and people values — especially as leaders started to role model new behaviors and acceptance of imperfect results.

In the face of crisis induced uncertainty it has now become acceptable at all levels to “learn as we go”, adapting to the crisis and changing when required.

There is a recognition that people are striving for excellence rather than perfection, acknowledging that people are doing the best they can, understanding they have imperfect information, and the need to learn our way through a crisis (or market and other uncertainty post crisis).

Responses can now shift post-release from “How could you have got this wrong?” to “What is our next best action?” Seeing how shipping smaller slices allows us to iterate, also means leaders can set direction and monitor metrics over setting targets and failing anything but perfect results.

10. Seeing The Whole Human over Humans as Resources

The other dimension observed by colleagues relates to the human aspects this crisis has drawn out. We now see people holistically, not just as employees, due to the need to cater for vulnerable dependents, families, children and outside work circumstances which organizations now must support.

Even just seeing colleagues in their home environments during video calls, where they must work and manage distractions, builds empathy and wider social compassion during this pandemic. There are people making meals, chasing children and constructing workstations while simultaneously keeping our systems running — it’s humbling.

Seeing the entire person has led to an organizational culture shift, re-engaging people through small acts of kindness (emailing a thank you or well done), helping people to go the extra mile and empathizing to their entire situation not just tracking their start and finish work times. People’s personal circumstances are now acknowledged, providing more flexibility around family commitments, increasing productivity by placing colleagues and their families at the heart of organizational values.

Can we hold on to this post crisis to create a workplace where people don’t change into a corporate citizen when they start work in the morning, and change back at night, instead bring their whole compassion, skills and enthusiasm to work and manage to balance it with their lives for sustainable speed and delivery.

11. Effort Tied To Outcome over What was the Actual Result?

Without doubt, teams are reporting how they are “loving the delivery focus and pace” crisis has created. People enjoy feeling productive and seeing the effort closely tied to customer satisfaction and business results. Many of the people we spoke to have reported their desire to make this their mode for ways of working.

However, the glaring negative — which every person has called out — is the long working hours, continuous video calls, and chat pings throughout the night. Also, experience of past crises teaches us that the fire fighting can be fun, but when the white hot fire is taken away an organization reverts to type.

It raises two questions: How to avoid burnout? And how to turn our crisis successes to a sustainable culture?


Acting Our Way To A New Way Of Thinking

None of the above concepts are new. None of the changes are hard to understand, less unlearn. They simply go against the majority of people’s leadership conditioning, and struggle to land in oversimplified certifications or overcomplicated bureaucratic systems.

So why are we seeing successes in new ways of working now? What’s different?

Put simply, this situation isn’t artificial. It’s not a training, a simulation or a story of what great looks like—it’s real. People are seeing, feeling and experiencing the benefits of applying these ways of working for themselves.

The biggest hurdle to change is people not believing it’s possible. The pressure of the crisis has prompted people to act differently, provided a new perspective and impacted their mindset for the better. It creates the forcing function to react, grow or be left behind.

People do not change their mental model of the world by speaking about it, they need to experience the change to believe and feel it.

The question is what is the first step you are willing to take to try something new? Will you take it yourself or will you wait until you have no other option?

Transformations often define their success in terms of output-based deliverables — be it reduction in operating cost, introduction of new products, technology platforms or processes. This focus on What output will be created adds more priorities, projects and tasks to transform. It leaves even less time for learning and reflection to change How teams are working — ways they might innovate or increase productivity. Yet, this is the lasting transformation.

Pressure is piled on dates and deliverables, forcing people to revert to “how we have always done it”, regardless of better paths and options for success over the long term.

In these critical moments that active executive and team leadership is paramount. If you fail to set up the space and systems for change to happen you will fail.

Our 11 points give you an alternative path. Are you willing to take them?

Think BIG. Start small. Learn Fast.

The question now for executives to individual contributors is how can we bottle these behaviors, accelerate their adoption and spark further transformation across the organization.

Here are our tips for how you can THINK BIG, start small and learn fast today, what to do tomorrow and the future to continuously transform your organization to meet evolving market needs and challenges regardless of the circumstances or uncertainty ahead.

How Can You Start Small Today To Succeed?

Start Today

  • Recognize, capture and codify the mindset and behaviors shifts. Catalogue them, celebrate and call them out. It’s easy to forget what really happened. Don’t lose your shifts before it’s too late. Encourage Journaling, After Action Reports, Retrospectives, Interviews before people forget. Create time and space in your systems of work for this.
  • Share stories of successes and failures—normalize the socializing of both. It debunks the myth that innovation can’t happen in your company’s context, and open sharing of failure creates courage for your teams to take ownership, make decisions, and innovate.
  • Define the problems and outcomes collaboratively with the team, then get out of the way and let them figure out the solutions. Gain control by deferring command to those closest to the work and minimize risk by working in small, fast feedback loops to course-correct and adapt as needed.


  • Emphasise how powerful it was to learn your way through uncertainty and make it a habit. Recognize that building systems to find out the answers to your questions sooner and safer with smaller steps reduces more risk than policing through policies and processes.
  • Work hard to keep your set of priorities to a minimum. If you are saying Yes to one new initiative, what are you saying No to? If you can keep this discipline you have a better chance of maintaining the momentum and productivity you’re experiencing at the moment.
  • Test your strategy cascade methods to maintain the clear purpose, problems and outcomes teams are working towards. Ask teams if there’s a clear line of sight between the objectives, and how their work contributes to achieve your shared success. If they can’t see it, fix it. Maximising both organizational alignment and autonomy can be the biggest accelerant for sustainable pace, employee engagement and amazing customers experiences.
  • Acknowledge your resources as people, support the whole person not just the employee. Run sessions to understand how to make work sustainable and satisfying as we learn our way through the pandemic and beyond. What ways of working should be systematized? What should be stopped?


  • Connect communities across your organization. Make it easy for teams to learn from one another. Lunch and learns, internal conferences and collaboration opportunities only serve to build better capabilities and practices
  • Invest in technology platforms and systems of work that make it easier, cheaper and safer to experiment and iterate your solutions. Small slices of functionality, fast feedback loops and high quality analytics will help you learn fast what works and what does not when working with customers. Uncertainty will become an opportunity over something scary, when risk management becomes an intrinsic part of your product development
  • Recognize what gaps you had in your teams and thinking. Diverse teams make better decisions, and reflect the customers outside the company walls. Create a Diversity strategy and don’t just hire people that look, talk and think just like you
  • Support people that pursue personal development. Recognize and reward those that are supporting others to grow, develop and get outside their comfort zone. Seize this moment of curiosity during chaos and encourage teams to try one new skill each week and see how it works for them—deliberately trying small changes frequently make change easier over the long term.

What Will Be Your First Small Step?

For many organizations nothing will ever be the same again, and they will have to face new customer needs and economic realities. If you can systematize your innovations and remove the stale methods and mindsets that have held you back, the opportunities to succeed in a challenging post-crisis environment are great.

Identifying what you need to stop, start or switch up your organizations will build the capabilities to continuously adapt to changing circumstances—regardless of the situation. This crisis has given us lots of ideas where to start.

It can feel daunting, an overwhelming task to transform your business and succeed. However, if you THINK BIG about what is possible, start small with one new step a day, you’ll learn fast what works for you and what doesn’t.

You’ll unlearn, let go of outdated thinking and obsolete behaviors. And relearn how to rethink your strategies, retool your capabilities, and revitalize your businesses for stronger, longer-lasting success.

And if you are still stuck, you can always connect with us to help you get started and create high performance organizations to innovate at scale.