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Over the past few weeks, in an unsatisfactory attempt to inject some pep into my email correspondence, I’ve started to append messages with the words “see you on the other side”.
The phrase, I’ve come to realise, is one of anticipation tinged by expectation: it suggests that, at some yet-to-be-determined point in the coming months, the coronavirus crisis will be in the rear view mirror. Beyond that, it implicitly anticipates a golden moment in the future when we’ll survey the road unfolding before us and contemplate wide vistas of opportunity as things “get back to normal”. We’ll board planes to attend conferences in foreign cities, we’ll cross town for client meetings in swanky co-working spaces, we’ll have drinks with our workmates at the local.
But at the moment the future feels hypothetical and inaccessible from where we’re currently marooned. There was a time when we made plans – new products, acquisitions, exciting hires – based on certain criteria, whether that was market opportunities, innovative services or growth trajectories of industries. We projected expectations based on predictable conditions, we calculated based on the recognisable and familiar. And this might explain why so much of the language that we’re currently using during and about the crisis is based on the proposition that current conditions are transitory and that our systems, practices, processes, expectations and economies will return – at some unknown point in the coming months and years – to facsimiles of what they were in 2019.
But, there’s also a possibility that the present we find ourselves in isn’t a temporary condition, but chronic and perpetual.
Last week as UK jobless numbers soared to two million, the biggest month-on-month rise in out-of-work benefits since records began, the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak suggested that there would be “scarring” to the UK economy. The talk of a V-shaped recovery – in which the economic growth rate might return to the pre-crisis trend within a couple of quarters – has shifted to a discussions of U-shapes (the US in 2008, which didn’t rebound to its pre-crisis trend), L-shapes (Greece in 2008, short summation: not good) and the current wisdom, which appears to be shaped like a bathtub. Let’s call it the jacuzzi recovery model.
Whatever the shock geometry and the differing contours of progressions and recoveries, it’s clear that “the other side” is not a destination, but a constant. If your bonus is determined by hitting sales targets then, in all likelihood, you’ve probably already missed them, which places organisations in a bind: if we define ourselves by the way that we used to think, then chances are that we’re setting ourselves up for failure. Our KPIs will need to shift as we hit reset and begin to define what the qualities are that organisations existing in a state of ongoing uncertainty look like, not just today, but in a year’s time and beyond.
The good news is that this might actually be okay. Uncertainty is a state in which many organisations can thrive if there is acceptance that this is simply how things are. While the coronavirus crisis has been a systemic shock to economies and markets across the globe, for many organisations the crisis has simply accelerated many of the shifts that they were already observing. Digital transformation; remote working; projects driven by small and agile teams; a fragmented geopolitical landscape; the decarbonisation of supply chains; a move towards purpose-driven business; and increased focus on employees and customers rather than shareholders, are all familiar trends with trajectories that have advanced in adaptable organisations.
Which is why the phrase ‘new normal’ seems inadequate, because there will be no normal any longer. Many businesses have made changes in just a few weeks that it might have taken them months to make in different circumstances. They had no other choice.
Take the energy company that, in the early days of the pandemic, had to build a customer service hub almost overnight for customers over the age of 75. Or the telco that had to double the capacity of its mobile and fixed networks in the same timeframe, or even the software provider that had to deploy its service throughout the entire NHS within ten days. In the past, accomplishing these feats in these timeframes would have been thought of as unattainable. GPs used to spend 90 per cent of their time face-to-face with patients – the same percentage is now spent on virtual consultations. We were told for a decade that legal services would switch online; they didn’t until around six weeks ago when the justice system needed to adapt to continue to function.
For many organisations, the jeopardy of the crisis has forced similar forms of strategic execution. In recent weeks we’ve seen leaders and managers forced to act. And what makes the current situation so unusual is that this isn’t just in particular territories or sectors – this is businesses across the world all having to deliver at exactly the same time. Think about that for a moment: literally every business of every size across the globe having to rethink itself within a period of weeks.
In December 2015, Satya Nadella announced a fundamental shift in company strategy at Microsoft. “Our ability to evolve our culture is the leading indicator of our future success – the core cultural change we’re driving at Microsoft is based on this notion of a growth mindset,” he told shareholders at a meeting in Bellevue, Washington. “We’re transforming ourselves from a group who knows it all to a group of people who will learn it all. When we approach every problem with this insatiable curiosity and a desire to delight our customers we gain deeper insight, we innovate, we grow.”
At the time, Nadella was less than two years into the job of leading Microsoft, a company that was the poster child of the innovator’s dilemma: you can make great products but still lose market leadership. Nadella decided that in order to start producing products that people wanted rather than just needed, he had to change the culture of the company in ways that altered not just expectations, but the way that success was measured.
To some degree, most organisations find themselves in this position, negotiating a precarious balance between the speed at which the old ways of doing things are retired and new ways are implemented.
In countries experiencing a political vacuum such as the US and UK, business leaders have a significant role to play to offer more than just management. There must be a vision that seeks to do more than hope for a return to what was before.
At a time of perpetual uncertainty, determining what might be next by remembering what we used to do is a failure of imagination. Rather than interpreting the world as it was – or what we’d like it to be – we need to understand and respond to the world as it is. And, if the past few weeks have proved, challenging circumstances can stimulate prodigious amounts of innovation. We’ve seen teams execute at speed and rise to challenges with incredible creativity, often demonstrating commendable qualities and exhilarating capacities. For many businesses, we’re already on the other side and we’ve seen what the new normal looks like.
Greg Williams is WIRED’s editor-in-chief. He tweets from @GregWilliams718
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