Service in a Time of Rapid Change: The Unthinkable Happens…What Next?

Aric Zion, CEO          Zion & Zion

– Written by Elizabeth Farquhar, Writer and Editor, for the Center for Services Leadership

As sucker punches go, this coronavirus pandemic was a championship blow. Some companies would probably agree with boxer Mike Tyson, who said “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

This is a historic moment, but we have been surprised by sudden, disruptive change in the past, and we are sure to be challenged by rapidly shifting conditions in the future. So, what determines which organizations will respond successfully?

Some companies have been successful for decades simply dealing with business as it comes in the door, says Aric Zion, the CEO of Zion & Zion, a marketing strategy, advertising, public relations, and interactive marketing agency. “A lot of people go into work, see a full inbox and are happy. It guides their day because it gives them something to respond to” he says. “Along comes COVID – now what?”

In times like these companies should be able to find guidance in their strategy. In fact, a disruption to the status quo can be an opportunity, depending on how the firm defines strategy, Zion says.

Zion shapes his concept of strategy around a definition developed by Harvard Business School Professor Michael Porter. “We choose to do this and not that: we make active tradeoffs,” Zion says. Many companies say they pursue a growth strategy, but “that’s not strategy, that’s a desire,” he says. Strategy is the actions firms take to move toward a goal.

Half of Zion & Zion’s strategy is a series of “very active objectives to differentiate us from the competition by offering services that clients need but are not currently getting from their agencies.”

“The second part of it,” he adds, “is a more emergent approach that focuses on maintaining a highly flexible, adaptive organization.” He estimates that 95 percent of his staff have multiple skills. Zion & Zion built “a group of people that are adaptive, that move around, that see other parts of the company and acquire new skills rapidly.”

When economic activity pulled back this spring, Zion kept his people working on projects that align with his company’s innovation strategy. And so, when other professional services firms were laying off employees and slashing wages, Zion & Zion kept all its people working. “Because we’ve had a strategy all along, related to technology and innovation and new service offerings, we can now pour additional energy into all those activities that were ripe to be moved forward even more aggressively.”

Some industries were hit harder by this emergency. The airlines and the tourism sector, including hotels, have been slowed to a near halt. “But at the same time, if those organizations are smart, their core people are talking about how to transform their industries. And hopefully if they have strong strategies because this is an opportunity to devote more time to the strategy,” he said.

A punch in the face does not have to be a knockout, Zion says, if you have a clearly defined strategy.

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