What leaders can learn from making a vaccine
This week, Oxford University published a neat little video called How to Make a Vaccine in Record Time. It was produced, presumably, to answer the question on the sceptics’ minds: how could a vaccine, which normally takes 15 years to produce, be safely ready in a matter of months?
I too was fascinated to find out.
The presumption in the question is that they started the vaccine development as soon as someone said: “hey, this Covid-19 coronavirus will be the new pandemic, get to work”!
Using an animated gantt chart, the video showed that, in contrast to this presumption, it was actually thanks to all their earlier, anticipatory work that they were able to get a successful vaccine developed and tested in just a few months. Knowing the potential threat of a pandemic, and building on scientific responses to outbreaks such as SARS, MERS and Ebola, the Oxford researchers began working on developing a vaccine for ‘disease X’ ten years ago!
So by the time we knew Covid-19 was a serious health threat, the Oxford team had already run clinical trials on the delivery mechanism for other types of coronavirus, built a vaccine production facility on-site, screened potential volunteers, and worked alongside funders and regulators.
The process is a triumph in human ingenuity and in our uniquely human ability to anticipate what might be coming so we can effectively plan for it. In the case of a Covid-19 vaccine, this may well be a triumph for humanity as a whole — but in any organisation, a similarly proportionate impact can be achieved by leaders who anticipate and prepare.
The Oxford team’s success calls into serious question our seemingly singular obsession with execution in the leadership space. In the business books section of Amazon, enter ‘execution’ as a search term and you’ll find more than 3,000 books on the subject. Type in ‘anticipation’, however, and you’ll only find around 100.
Because historically, in the old ways of thinking that are increasingly challenged by the enlightened, leaders have been encouraged to become adept at managing change, managing projects and managing operations. All with a laser-like focus on execution, of course. And I agree that it is hugely important — of course. In all of the effective businesses I have dealings with, as a consultant or as a customer, execution is vital.
But this has been about good management, whereas in an increasingly turbulent and complex world, the successful leaders will be those who can predict and respond to future changes every bit as well as they can manage execution.
However, the mindset, habits and behaviours needed to execute well are at odds with those required for engaging in anticipation and foresight of what might be on the longer-term horizon. So leaders need to be purposeful and deliberate in setting the time aside to do this different type of leadership work. It’s an investment that will pay untold dividends later — just as the vaccine team’s previous investment and focus is paying untold dividends now.
Even in organisations that have strong foresight and insight teams within their strategy department, it is the responsibility of senior leaders to do the anticipatory work to understand what future impacts might be on the horizon. It might be a policy or regulatory change, a change in consumer behaviour, or shifts in how shareholders are investing; whatever potential shock waves ripple out to your business, if you have a good grasp on the signals in your strategic environment, you can develop truly effective strategies, respond with agility, and — above all else — stay competitive and sustainable.
Developing an anticipatory capability
The Institute of Project Management’s 10 thGlobal Project Management Survey noted that: “9.9% of every dollar is wasted due to poor project performance — that’s $99 million for every $1billion invested”.
And a core reason for this astonishing loss, the report highlights, is that organisations fail to bridge the gap between strategy design and delivery.
In my own experience, many projects run extremely smoothly and organisations have built tremendous capability to deliver well-structured projects with exceptional efficiency. Most organisations that execute complicated projects well have a structured process using tollgate methodology based on ‘gate reviews’ — where the objectives of each stage must be met before the team can move on to the next stage.
When this approach fails, such failure is rarely random. Instead it often related to the type of problem the project is trying to solve and, specifically, the number and complexity of the project’s interrelationships. Much of this work should be done outside of the project scope.
Tollgate projects begin their life by setting parameters on an already determined need. But in an increasingly turbulent and disruptive world, there are some issues that are highly complex, ambiguous and intangible in nature — rendering such an approach ineffective and perhaps even obsolete. Such issues require us to make sense of them before we’re anywhere near ready to manage them through project controls.
The truth is there is a messy, anticipatory, complex stage that happens before projects ever get into a tollgate process. And it’s here that much of the anticipatory, strategic leadership work is done.
The first tollgate — TG1 — is a pre-defined decision point in a project where a decision is made to start the project planning phase. Its purpose is to ensure the project is aligned with the organisation’s goals, it is initiated and procured in a business-oriented manner, and the customer benefits are considered. But, as the vaccine example shows, waiting until the point when the project is deemed viable could be far too late to quickly get the project up and running.
If we look at major project failures — where the project goes way over time, scope and budget — we see that leaders and project managers assumed that the work prior to the tollgate process is less important that the work that happens in TG1.
The anticipatory and problem-solving approaches adopted before issues move into a formalised process are often the key to the project’s eventual outcome, and accepting this is an essential factor in effective leadership.
In my work with executive teams working on complex problems, we have grappled with this very issue. In a number of organisations I’ve been working with, we’ve been developing a ‘tollgate minus’ process. For an organisation adept at working within a structured framework, we extend the organisational capability backwards, creating a TG-1 and a TG-2.
In TG-2, the strategic work is anticipatory. Deploying strategic foresight and futures methods allow leaders to scope a potential future landscape and determine and prioritise the potential, possible and preferable futures they need to prepare for. It is a highly divergent, creative and exploratory exercise. Many of the issues identified at this stage may require only a ‘keep watching’ action, but this means executive teams are already monitoring crucial signals are progressing and are prepared for additional scrutiny at an appropriate point. Some issues are either sufficiently likely or sufficiently impactful that they need further preparation. These issues move into TG-1.
Issues that are more pressing, with potential impacts for which the organisation needs to plan and prepare, progress to TG-1. This is the space where pre-planning is done. This is a more convergent stage than TG-2, but one where multiple possibilities remain. Issues — like a global pandemic — can sit in this space for months and even years. In a best case scenario, this is where the preparatory work is done ‘just in case’ — such as stockpiling PPE, or developing new strategic partnerships and alliances that may be necessary in the future.
When done well, it means that important strategic shifts — often best executed through a formal project methodology — are well prepared for in advance. Just like they did at Oxford.
Strategic agility comes from strategic foresight
Developing anticipatory systems in your organisation, and creating the capacity to plan and prepare for eventualities, is, I believe, one of the most important strategic challenges you face today.
The ‘engineering’ part of the process, in which logic, reductionism and rationality reign supreme, are necessary parts of a project’s implementation. But they are actually unhelpful before the tollgate project approach actually happens.
If you want to create strategic agility, you must first have strategic foresight. For it is only through a well-developed anticipatory framework that you will know where you may need to pivot to at a moment’s notice.