As just about everyone is saying, these are indeed unprecedented times. The speed and pervasiveness of the change created by the global pandemic compares to nothing else that the world has seen. It has called for rapid, decisive action to ensure the potential health crisis didn’t spin out of control. But as the urgency around the measures necessary to stop the spread of the virus begin to subside, it’s now time to shift our response to focus on the collateral impacts – the ‘long tail’. It’s now time to move from reaction to adaptation.
The nature of the disease
When you think about, the COVID-19 strain of the coronavirus has been responsible for the spread of three distinct ‘diseases’.
The first and primary disease is the one that is transmitted person-to-person and impacts our personal health – with potentially deadly consequences for some.
The second disease is the one that gets transmitted industry-to-business, business-to-business and business-to-employee as we grapple with the fallout of our response to this health crisis. It impacts the financial and economic health of our society. Its ripples are felt around the globe whether we close our borders or not. And, unfortunately, it will mean the death of a great many vulnerable businesses.
The third disease comes from the combined effect of the first two. It’s the one that creeps up from within and impacts the way people feel about the security of their professional future, the financial health of their family and, ultimately, themselves.
Although all these diseases are the result of a common instigating cause, the unique characteristics of each calls for different responses.
These diseases have something in common: if we flatten the curve of infection – if we reduce the speed with which they spread – we minimise the overall impacts on society and reduce the long-term harm to individuals.
However, each disease is different in the way that we need to respond. The length of the tale of the flattened curve will play out over very different timeframes. The way that it impacts each of us will vary dramatically.
Stopping the spread of the human disease required a dramatic – if imperfect – response to stem the spread of infection. Isolation, social-distancing and careful hygiene have been – and will continue to be – the most effective tools with which to respond.
Go slow to go far
On the other hand, knee-jerk reactions are not the most effective way to respond to the economic disease. Freneticism will never produce the best long-term response when dealing with high levels of volatility and uncertainty in the business environment. Arguably, it won’t result in the most effective short-term actions either.
Stemming the tide of disruptive change requires a considered, adaptive response. One where you maximise the investment of your limited time and resources so that you’re taking intentional steps toward your best possible future.
Anyone that was ever taken an emergency response, or a wilderness survival course will have learned that the best short-term decision-making comes from being considered in your actions. Carefully assess your situation and be clear about what you know and DON’T know – what resources are available and what actions are critical.
Reaction is the new panic
How a business’s leaders respond also has a profound impact on the DIS-ease that employees and team members are experiencing at an individual level. The highly reactive response can soon look like panic in the eyes of your people.
The isolation that it is keeping them and their loved ones safe is also isolating them from the ‘pulse of the business.’ They take their cue from how you respond. Reactivity adds to their already heightened anxiety. Anxiety created as they learn to work from home, incorporate home-schooling for their children into their busy lives and struggle with the adrenal fatigue that accompanies long periods of uncertainty.
People are seldom at their creative and productive best when their anxious. And ‘keeping them busy’ will hardly help you to forge a new business future.
Here the best treatment for the disease is meaningful engagement and…hope! The opportunity for your people to see first-hand that there is a future for the business and be given a chance to help shape that future.
In search of a cure…
I have no expertise in infectious disease or public health policy. But I have spent most of the last 10 years helping business and team leaders to become more adaptive in the face of an increasingly dynamic and disruptive business environment. Technological change, shifting social expectations, economic and competitive pressures, and operational complexity have been the primary instigators of these discussions.
It has become increasingly clear that the speed and pervasiveness of change in today’s world means that we are moving out of the knowledge economy and into the adaptation economy. An era where what you KNOW is ‘necessary but insufficient’ to ensure your organisation will thrive. Your history – no matter how BIG your data is – is no longer a safe haven for responding to the levels of disruption and uncertainty that the 21st century will throw at us.
It is your ability to ADAPT AND LEARN in the face of uncertainty and volatility that will set your business apart from the competition. Adaptation is not just an effective means of weathering the disruptive storm, but is essential if you are to seize the opportunities that these major shifts create. It is essential if we are to learn at the pace necessary to keep up with the constantly shifting landscape.
The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted this reality by turning it up to 11!
Adaptability allows you to get comfortable with uncertainty because it is ‘the unknown’ that pulls you forward. It’s a rallying point for your people’s attention and provides meaning for their actions. It imbues the journey into the future with adventure and possibility!
Creating a treatment plan
So, what’s the best course of treatment for the economic disease that’s coming out of this health crisis? What will alleviate our people’s anxiety and provide business leaders with a framework for engaging them in purposeful activity that moves the business forward over the uncertain and constantly shifting terrain?
Strategy-making. The work of consistently and persistently evolving your business toward the future that you aspire to.
This isn’t new ‘COVID-19 magic fifi dust’ that I’ve whipped up just for the current crisis. It’s a strategic approach that drives adaptation and learning in a world that is ever-more uncertainty and volatile. It’s a framework that brings your best possible future – no matter how ill-defined it might be – into the work of the present. It will afford the forward-thinking business leader the opportunity to shape the business’s future, not have the future shape their business.
The best tools at the business leader’s disposal for responding to the dynamic nature of today’s (or any!) business environment are:
- Engaging the diversity of thought and experience of your people to understand your most critical needs and where the greatest value lies,
- Expressing that value in terms of the improvement and development opportunities that you can actively pursue,
- Identifying the strategic projects that will allow you to seize those opportunities,
- Triage your activities so that you invest your limited time and resources in the things that are the most critical to your future success, then
- Continuously adapting as uncertainty yields to emerging clarity.
This means exploring not only what changes you need to adapt to or the emerging opportunities that those changes may create, but also what you’ve learned from your response to the pandemic thus far. What capabilities or realisations has necessity created?
The elegance lies in the fact that an adaptive approach allows you to respond to both of these collateral diseases simultaneously. You can prepare your organisation to take on whatever our new business future looks like…
…engage and motivate your people by making them apart of shaping that future.
“The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage”
This powerful observation from Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline is more important today than it has ever been. BUT it has long been important and will continue to be important long after the ripples of the coronavirus crisis have subsided.
What many leaders will have learn from the current circumstances is that their adaptive capability was exposed and found lacking. Whether it was their ability to respond to the downturn in business because they were forced to shut their public-facing doors, the brittleness of their supply chains or their ability to respond to the increase in business that the global pandemic response generated – think Zoom or toilet paper manufacturers.
Adaptation is the road to this competitive advantage. It is the path that transports your organisation from knowing to learning. It is the “rising tide that floats all boats.”
When you move from reacting to the immediate circumstances to adapting to what lies ahead, you lessen the damage to our economy, you help inject life into your industry, you shape a more robust financial future for your business and you elevate the fortunes of your people.
In fact, you might just find insights and connections that make you stronger on the other side.
 HT to Jeff Kowalski, CTO of Autodesk, for his concept of the Augmentation Era.