Culture5 min read

In Conversation: Sir Clive Woodward and Charles Mindenhall on lessons for big business in times of crisis

We recently brought together World Cup-winning Coach, Sir Clive Woodward, and Charles Mindenhall, Co-founder of Blenheim Chalcot, the UK’s leading digital venture builder, in a webinar where they reflected on their experiences of leading teams through turbulent times, building businesses that have thrived even in recession eras, and their insights curated from their networks of CEO peers.

We’re publishing parts of the discussion as part of a mini-series so you can access their insights in bitesize bursts of actionable learning. You can head back to Part 1 here if you’d like to start at the beginning.

Part 5: Big business need to operate with a small business mindset to accelerate out of the crisis

Sir Clive Woodward:

In your world, Charles, the venture building, you often operate with a lot of uncertainty as well. I’m just wondering, you went through the recession in 2008, so you’ve been through the crisis before. What lessons have you got for us as well? Or what lessons have you got for big business, how they handle this at the moment?

Charles Mindenhall:

Well, picking up some of the things I mentioned earlier, because it’s so uncertain at the moment, and there are multiple scenarios for what’s going to happen to the economy, there are multiple scenarios for how we might exit lockdown, we’re all operating in this very ambiguous, slightly chaotic world. I suspect that’s going to carry on for the next 12 to 24 months.

When you’re in the world of venture building and building businesses, you’re almost always operating in, where you are fundamentally uncertain about where the world is going, whether your product or service is going to be needed or not, whether customers will buy it, whether you’ll get product-market fit, how big the market is actually going to end up being. I suspect that’s a world that’s going to be much more prevalent for larger companies over the next, as I say, the next 24 months or so, given all the uncertainty.

I think the thing that we do quite a lot of is experimentation. We have hypotheses about who the world is going, and then we look for the experiments we conduct. Often, that’s putting a product or a service into the market and then seeing what the feedback is, seeing who buys it, seeing what the customer group is, seeing what they say to you, seeing whether they like it or not.

I think given there’s this uncertainty, and the general view that all bets are off and no one quite knows what the outcomes are going to be, I think big businesses need to get into more of a phase of operating according to hypothesis and experimentation, and then looking at the data.

I think importantly, you have to get out of this notion of always being seen to be right. Leaders are often expected to have the right view on things, be the person everyone turns to give you the answer. Well, the answers aren’t going to be out there as much as they were, perhaps, before, if they were ever, and therefore you’re going to have to go in saying, “Here’s my hypothesis, now let’s experiment, look for the data that we get back,” and not be defensive, or try not to be defensive. Obviously, it’s easy to say that, hard to do. We all know that. But try not to be defensive if your hypothesis turns out not to be correct. Then get the information, get the feedback from people in your organisation, and learn from that about how you’re going to evolve and iterate what you’re doing.

Sir Clive Woodward:

I’ve often said because as I said, I worked for Xerox for eight years, so a big multinational … you know, all these layers, and then my own small finance company, and also working for you, Charles, and with Blenheim Chalcot, it’s almost like saying, if you could put a small business mindset into a big business, it’d be so powerful. It’s understanding that … When I say small, I say that as a real compliment. I really admire people who run small businesses, where they’re putting it all on the line, they’re passionate about what they’re doing, and they are what you were talking about. They are entrepreneurial, and they think differently.

Suddenly, when you get into a big business, you change a bit. You just become fairly … There’s a different kind of mentality in a big business than a small business. If you could put a small business, successful venture builder in a top business, that’d be amazing.

Charles Mindenhall:

It’s true. Actually, you see, obviously, some of the most successful businesses in the world, you see it with Amazon, for example.

Jeff Bezos talks about day zero and day one, right? They’re on day one all the time. Not day two, not day three of the business. They’re always on day one. There’s that sort of paranoia about who he’s going to be disrupted by, and he’s always seeking to reinvent things. Obviously, big businesses can’t always operate like small businesses. They need to build bigger processes and systems and so on in order to pursue their objectives. But actually, that mentality and mindset question, and how you think about what could disrupt your businesses.

Some of the technological disruption we’re seeing now and some of the way things are going to change over the next few years with this massive consumer, corporate adoption of technology that’s accelerated, I think that will bring more challenges to bear for large companies, and therefore the importance of having this sort of change mindset, a change mindset and an ability to respond more quickly to things, will be very important.

Hannah Flaherty:

If leaders should spend their time thinking about creating a strategy for a safe, phased return to how we worked before, or should we think more about creating an entirely new model of work fueled by insights from the crisis and the way that we’re working now?

Charles Mindenhall:

The answer, in my view, or my opinion, is hypothesis. If we could call it that, is the second, that this is an opportunity for us to rethink how all of us operate as individuals, but also as companies. What this has shown us is, we can operate more flexibly from home. We can get a balance into our home and work lives, perhaps, that we didn’t think was possible before. I think that’s a great thing for lots of people, particularly those with families and so on who want more of that flexibility. So I think that’s great.

I also think from an office environment perspective, we can get the best of both worlds, getting the sort of physical interaction that we all want, which is very important, actually, I think, with our colleagues, and the way ideas can flow, so you don’t want to lose that, but also make better use of all the buildings that we have that often sit empty, right? They’re often empty for large parts of, well, days, weekends, evenings, and so on. So how could you get better asset utilization, and perhaps need less of a footprint when it comes to all the offices that we have around the world? So definitely an opportunity, I think, to rethink how we do things.

Sir Clive Woodward:

I agree with Charles totally. I think the word I’ve been using so much over the last three months is reset. I think reset is a great word. What we’re meaning by reset is given what’s … There’s no point looking back at what it used to be like. What is it like today? What is it going to be like in the future? You’ve got reset all your views and all your ways of operating.

There’s no right or wrong, but I kind of like the word reset, because it actually asks you to stop. Let’s reset. Let’s just take a few seconds or a few minutes or a few hours to really think through, what are we going to do now to maximize the business, how it’s going to work? And we’ll reset.

And sometimes some of these decisions may be quite tough in terms of the rest button, but sometimes it’s just, actually, there is a better way of doing this, and maybe this is going to be the right lessons coming out of this pandemic. It’s been absolutely awful. You don’t need me to say that, in terms of, it’s been a tragic situation. But it’d be even worse if we don’t actually learn the right lessons and move on strongly when and if we do come out of this, and become better at what we do, and make sure this will never, ever happen again in our lifetime, that we don’t get caught again by whatever has caused this. So we’ve got to reset how we’re going to work and how we’re going to think.

key takeaway:

In this uncertain world, organisations need to operate with agility; operate by hypothesis and experimentation in order to get product-market fit.

Businesses who win will be those who make it easy for their people to rapidly learn together and from each other.  That will be the only way to ensure your organisation is equipped to respond quickly to what is likely to be an unpredictable and bumpy road to recovery.

Learning will be at the heart of the post-pandemic reset and there will be a need for every person at every level to embrace everyday learning.

If you’d like to listen to the full recording, you can do so here.

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