Today’s high street retailers need to be changeable, says Egremont Group consultant

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By Henry Davies, consultant at business transformation specialist, Egremont Group

Davies: businesses must learn to drive their teams towards the future

From Brexit, to the rise of Donald Trump, it seems as if conventional thinking has taken quite a beating in the past twelve months. If there was ever an era of “business as usual”, it certainly isn’t now. The victories of ‘Leave’ and Trump coupled with the demise of the mainstream are symbolic of how rapidly the world is changing and becoming increasingly volatile. With convention on the scrapheap, flexibility and invention are now key. The only way to thrive in this new world is to embrace the uncertainty and make a permanent commitment to change. Retailers need to take note.

On the high street paragons such as BHS have fallen by the wayside, while Jaeger and Store Twenty One are on the ropes. Yet, during this same period, a husband and wife who started their company in their front room have gone on to become the world’s largest hosiery store. UK Tights makes millions in turnover and has left established names standing. Why? How? On the one side, customer habits, preferences and requirements are evolving and technology has brought the traditional barriers to entry crumbling, tossing aside the conventional business playbook in the process. Yet incumbents have sat on their hands. Change-averse, paralysed by fear and presentism; holding on to the subconscious belief that the world of tomorrow will be the same as it is today.

Put this all together and the scene is set for a future array of David and Goliath business cases. For many British retailers, the stakes are too high for any potential competitor not to be taken seriously: numerous stores and employees’ jobs are on the line, not to mention years of brand history.

Trying to predict the future is a loser’s game, but entertaining and preparing for potential upsets or uncertainties is the opposite. Today looking outside of conventional opinion is essential to succeed in an increasingly volatile and changeable world. Organisations must “think the unthinkable”, develop contingencies and strategies to capitalise on upheavals and disruption. Of course, identifying the signs of change is just one half of the equation, the other is acting on it.

We call it being “changeable”, the ability to put the wheels of change in motion swiftly and eventually build it into a permanent practice, embedded in a company’s DNA. This changeability is like a muscle: at first it is weak and the process is clunky but with time and the right parameters and habits it can drive great success. Start-ups call this process “build, measure, learn” cycles. After an idea is born, the new product, initiative or campaign is built and launched into the market. Its progress is then measured over a period by robust metrics agreed in advance. Finally, the initiative is reviewed and ruthlessly dissected. The learning stage reveals whether teams’ hypotheses about their market are right.

If they are, they can then make the decisions to tweak their strategy or “pivot” accordingly. Alternatively, if the initiative falls short of the mark, the team has learned something new about its market and it can move onto the next idea. Start-ups such as UnMade have embodied this philosophy, their experimental approach has seen it effectively bring 3-D printing to knitwear by fusing industrial sewing machines with programmed software. The experience hands full control of the creative design process over to the everyday consumer. One-of-a-kind garments are made to order and go from idea to product in a matter of days.

Embodying changeability in a volatile world isn’t just a theoretical concept limited to hip start-ups. In fact, organisations with thousands of employees can do just the same. In America, Egremont Group worked with Walgreens, to oversee a nationwide transformation programme in response to the changing healthcare and retail landscapes. The transformation saw us touch more than 80,000 employees to embed new ways of serving the needs of customers. Teams began addressing problems efficiently, effectively and transferring more capability to frontline staff who understood the customer better than anyone. This change drove significant, measurable improvements in retail and pharmacy sales and staff turnover markedly reduced.

It’s this permanent embrace of change and ambiguity in start-ups, grassroots movements and large organisations that has allowed them to thrive in the rapidly changing and unpredictable environment. It repeatedly saw the signs of change, experimented and adapted when the incumbents were still thinking along traditional norms. To profit from uncertainty and ambiguity, businesses must learn to drive their teams towards the future by committing to making change a part of their identity, otherwise they’re just driving whilst looking through the rear-view mirror.

Henry Davies is a consultant at Egremont Group, www.egremontgroup.com delivering business transformation to clients both in The United Kingdom and The United States of America. He is also the creator of www.politics2strategy.com, a commentary on the influence of politics in business.

Egremont Group has worked extensively with Walgreens since 2015 to deliver effective business transformation in both headquarters and its 8,300 stores. The project saw Egremont Group install 90 fully-trained change agents within the company and deliver a significant financial return on investment for which Egremont Group won the award “Change Management in The Private Sector” at the 2017 MCA awards, where they were also named “Best New Consultancy”.