People’s virtual skills

People’s virtual skills

McKinsey studies the value of getting a transformation right under the current business conditions.


Getting a transformation right under normal business conditions is hard to do. In fact, according to our research, about 70 percent of transformations fail. But right now it’s perhaps even harder—and more critical—than ever.

In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, leaders are being asked to move fast and make big decisions with unprecedented frequency. Carrying out those decisions, and creating change that matters, will rely heavily on the capabilities of their people.

“It’s one thing to have a great strategy,” says Jon Garcia, a McKinsey senior partner, “but you need to have people with the right skills and capabilities driving the change for it to work—especially while being remote.”

To help organizations do that, we’ve developed a new digital capability-building program focused on helping organizations during COVID-19. Adapted from our aptly named “Ability to Execute” platform, which is typically used within large-scale transformations, the COVID Response Edition of the platform helps build the skills needed to create change quickly—and remotely.

Designed by Transformation consultants and McKinsey Academy learning specialists, the Ability to Execute platform is based on the latest adult-learning knowledge and practices. Each program combines online experiences and facilitated workshops and simulations to help employees improve the way they work, focusing on the skills and mindsets that matter most.

The new COVID Response Edition is designed to help companies quickly build employees’ skills to navigate this crisis. Over the course of three weeks, participants focus on mindsets and behaviors that drive performance, leadership in a crisis, and great remote working.

“Organizations are dealing with both urgent business and safety needs, and they’re also looking for ways to invest in their people,” says Michael Park, a McKinsey senior partner who is co-leading the Covid Response Edition with Jon. “Our hope is this program offers another opportunity to support employees’ growth.”

The original Ability to Execute platform has been deployed to over 235,000 employees across more than 80 organizations globally, helping leaders across around the world sustain transformational change.

Long before the coronavirus outbreak, for example, an advanced-industries company with more than 100,000 employees across 150 countries needed a scalable way to improve the way it functioned at a foundational level. A one-time project designed for the executive team alone wouldn’t be enough.

Over the course of a year, the organization rolled out an Ability to Execute platform in eight languages to more than 40,000 of its people. Through interactive simulations, videos and quizzes, and expert guidance informed by behavioral science, participants were asked to think deeply about their roles, provide meaningful feedback, and change their everyday behaviors.

“The COVID-19 environment has only exacerbated what’s needed for any transformation: translating common sense into common behavior to get uncommon impact.”

Liz McNally, McKinsey partner

This introduced an entirely new framework and common language that has helped change the company’s corporate culture. Meetings, for example, have been shortened to 30 minutes where possible with clear agendas and action items. The concept of pre-mortems—where colleagues identify risks and anticipate problems before a project begins and develop plans to prevent or reduce potential negative impact—has been embedded in employees’ ways of working.

Rajesh Krishnan, a McKinsey partner, explains how the mindset shift has taken place in this case. The client’s people talk about feeling heard and valued, and the leadership team says that the new structured approach more deeply integrates customers’ needs into their decision-making.

“Ability to Execute is about helping current and future leaders understand why their organization is going through the change that they are,” says Rajesh. “It demystifies complex concepts and delivers them in simple, tactical ways that make sense to everyone.”

Take prioritization, for example. Ability to Execute guides participants through a well-known exercise that uses rocks, water, and sand as metaphors for the varying degrees of importance around daily tasks. Participants can visualize how difficult it can be to accommodate the “big rocks” if you start with sand or water.

“A lot of this sounds like common sense,” says Liz McNally, a McKinsey partner. “But from our experience, many of these foundational skills are rarely common practice consistently across an organization. The COVID-19 environment has only exacerbated what’s needed for any transformation: translating common sense into common behavior to get uncommon impact.”


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