I’m being asked one question more than any other right now: What will be different after this is over?
The easiest answer is to try and guess some changes in behavior and activity. We will do more remote work. We will have more virtual meetings. We will start using more digital based products and tools. Personally, I believe if that is your primary take away then very little will change in your leadership or organization. Behaviors are driven by beliefs and attitudes which are generated by discipline and will. Most organizations will slowly climb back to a slight variation of the status quo. I’m not interested.
As a leader, I want to capitalize on this moment and create change by disciplining myself and my team to think in a new way and implement innovative practices that will accelerate our strategic vision. There’s a lot of talk and bluster about innovation and change in the midst of “crisis management” to get us through the ‘moment’. However, I have found that when something unexpected and significant happens, people’s initial reaction to change quickly devolves back to our habitual instincts to defend against disruption and manage the disturbance back to the status quo. The crisis becomes a threat to be tamed for the purpose of restoring normality. Instead the leader needs to force change by insisting that disruption continue or else the capacity to create, transform, and exploit opportunities is lost and finding new avenues of growth are missed.
Jim Loree, CEO of Stanley Black & Decker, believes, “Never in our lifetimes has the power of imagination been more important in defining our immediate future. Leaders need to seize the opportunity to inspire and harness the imagination of their organizations during this challenging time.”
Attitudes need to be enacted to ensure forward momentum and mitigate against status quo retreat.
1. Insurgency– this should be the tone of leadership from the top. Successful start-ups, disruptive innovators, and entrepreneurial ventures always exhibit a revolutionary swagger. Bain & Company’s Chris Zook and James Allen in their excellent book, Founder’s Mentality, maintain that even successful organizations stifle their growth because they inevitably lose their edge and in order to restore ‘speed, focus, and connection’ an insurgent mentality is needed. A crisis provides the dramatic reset necessary for leaders to have a call to action, all hands on deck urgency that can awaken dormant passion in any enterprise.
2. Unity– crisis, properly managed, puts people first. It fosters an ethos of togetherness that needs to be immediately turned into constructive teamwork and initiative — inviting people to reexamine how things have been done, reimagine how things could be done quicker, better, and cheaper. In ‘normal times’ people’s natural tendency is to focus on their particular objectives. New problems and opportunities embolden people to form rapid improvement teams to tackle the future collaboratively. Empowered associates who envision and execute a shared project accelerate a culture of ownership.
3. Partnership– crisis produces consolidation. When squeezed, what’s inside comes out, good and bad. There’s no better time to evaluate potential partners and assess their values, competencies, and capacity. Instead of hunkering down in survival mentality, now is the time to reach out and do more together with like-minded organizations that may not have been willing or aware of the advantages that partnering presents. A season of scarcity may starve out weaker institutions that could benefit from a merger or acquisition. It may also highlight resilient visionaries that could add untapped value in the form of a new partnership.
4. Pivots– now is the time to execute abandoning slow or redundant products and programs and to authorize the redirection of resources to emerging initiatives. New growth areas are slowed by the market’s lack of desire, willingness, or capacity to adapt and adopt. Crisis accelerates the adoption curve and forces the majority to accept change. Organizations that can provide not only new solutions, but accompanying training and education systems, produce indispensable value in a time of need.
5. Imagination– Rosabeth Moss Kanter believes, “Launching a future-oriented initiative in parallel with immediate crisis management and mitigation efforts is important for morale as well as the future business. It provides a sense of purpose, a chance to turn present pain into future possibilities.” Imagination is a different mindset than pivoting resources to emerging activities. It is an exercise in exploring the currently unknown spaces. As Peter Drucker put it, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” A recent Harvard Business Review study surveyed more than 250 multinational companies to understand the measures they were taking to manage the Covid-19 epidemic. “While most companies are enacting a rich portfolio of reactive measures, only a minority are yet at the stage where they’re identifying and shaping strategic opportunities.”
Management must be intentional to create a culture of change by:
- Providing thoughtful questions about the future to cross-disciplined work teams and giving them freedom to dream up unconventional solutions.
- Opportunity funding must be made available for the best conceived proposals to be attempted.
- Attempt multiple new initiatives, quickly identifying which have traction and measuring their performance in diverse environments.
- Proven solutions should be celebrated, replicated, and scaled.
In the Jim Collins classic, Built to Last, he details how the most visionary companies continually reinvent the future. “Visionary companies make some of their best moves by experimentation, trial and error, opportunism, and—quite literally—accident. What looks in retrospect like brilliant foresight and preplanning was often the result of ‘Let’s just try a lot of stuff and keep what works.’”
6. Commitment to Change– a crisis will always come to an end; that is the very nature of a crisis. Thus, a commitment to change after the crisis is equally important as in the middle of a crisis. If emphasized, this commitment should permeate the culture and identity of an enterprise, enacting the highest level of change. Leaders should sanction a dissatisfaction with the status quo and reward individuals who display an urgency not to just scale what works, but to seek out new things that work.
The response to ‘What will be different after this is over?’ is CHANGE. The greatest response to the pandemic as a leader is not that you lead your team through a crisis but that you have intentionally led them into a new generative culture that is edgy, more united, partner-rich, quick to pivot, and full of imagination.