Are Organizations Moving Toward the Sustainability of the Exceptional?

Are Organizations Moving Toward the Sustainability of the Exceptional?

This article by Zuora’s Michael Mansard, Director of Business Model Transformation, and INSEAD’s Wolfgang Ulaga, Professor of Marketing, was originally published in French on L’Usine Nouvelle under the title, “[Avis d’expert] Entreprises : vers une pérennisation de l’exceptionnel?”.


With each traumatic event that hits our societies, adaptive behaviors appear. The first planetary shock of the century, the Coronavirus crisis was no exception to the rule.

Ten exceptional weeks

To help millions of confined citizens to overcome their boredom, many businesses have suddenly taken the plunge. Media have opened access to all of their content; sports halls provided distance group lessons, and healthcare players have opened their digital platform to doctors for free teleconsultations.

Others, such as LVMH and Valeo, have not hesitated to redefine their borders to meet the shortage of artificial respirators or hydroalcoholic gels.

Finally, some took unprecedented risks to survive. While its activity has dropped by 30 to 40% due to the closure of markets and restaurants, the Rungis Market launched “Rungis delivered to your home,” a delivery platform for fresh products at home and for individuals. This is a much deeper development than it seems, as it involves the change of three dimensions of the economic model of the market: the nature of the customer, the value proposition, and the operating mode.

Driven by necessity and urgency, companies have been able to break free from their shackles. One month after the deconfinement and while the contours of a return to normalcy are increasingly taking shape, can we envisage the perpetuation of such behaviors? Yes, based on recent history.

Audacity, flexibility and collaboration

Following the 2008 economic crisis, companies – and individuals – were looking for flexibility. Deprived of liquidity and limited in their investment capacity, they were drawn into models allowing them to subscribe to services with limited risks. It was from this time that the meteoric growth of software-as-a-service (Salesforce), or of the sharing economy (Blablacar, Uber) took shape.

If the blast effect of the financial crisis of 2008 was such that it favored the emergence of an “after”, it’s hard to think that the current crisis “whose scale and speed are like nothing of what we have known in our lifetime “- according to Gita Gopinath, chief economist of the IMF – is an exception. It’s the same story from François Asselin. For the President of CPME, “we are faced with something unknown”.

It’s true that the clouds of uncertainty are gathering in the sky for entrepreneurs: the economic recovery remains uncertain, just like that of consumption; and the scope and timing of the French recovery plan have yet to be defined. Added to this is what social scientists call “unknown unknowns” – meaning, quite literally, that we don’t know what we don’t know. Six months ago, the unpredictable (but imaginable) was not a concern. Today, it is part of the daily life of organizations. In this environment, bold moves and flexibility will be more essential than ever.

Schumpeter’s return

Almost 80 years after having introduced the concept of “creative destruction” in his book “Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy”, Schumpeter’s idea returns to the front of the stage. This time, it could be led precisely by flexibility and the promotion of use, as responses to uncertainty. Thus, the repercussions of the crisis will mechanically promote companies capable of combining two types of agility. Commercial agility first, by rapidly defining and continuously iterating new business models as close as possible to customer needs. And operational agility, in response to new constraints: lack of liquidity, breaks in the logistics chain, etc.

Thus, as Saras Sarasvathy, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship, explains in her book “Effectuation: Elements of Entrepreneurial Expertise”, “the available resources must constitute the foundations on which the possible objectives will be built”. In other words, the crisis does not exclude projection, it simply changes its fundamentals. This “startup” of traditional entrepreneurial thinking is already at work. Witness, the initiative of Boconcept. The furniture brand has decided to maintain, including after the stores have reopened, its 500m² virtual store created in full containment.

In Mandarin Chinese, the word crisis – weiji – combines two realities: danger and opportunity. If companies are obsessed with danger, they will miss the opportunity to permanently get rid of their limiting beliefs. And therefore to perpetuate the exceptional.


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