A Futurist On Uncertainty, Remote Work Burnout, And The Opportunity To Fix Healthcare

June 11, 2020

By Adam Chapman, EyeForPharma on Mar 21, 2019

Complexity is the defining business and leadership challenge of our time. But it has never felt more urgent than this moment, with the coronavirus upending life and business as we know it. For the next few weeks, we’ll be talking to leaders about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems, and about Brody Moments (from Jaws’ Police Chief Brody and his famous line “you’re going to need a bigger boat”) related to the coronavirus.

Today we talk with Thomas Koulopoulos, a futurist and the author of thirteen books, including Reimagining Healthcare: How the Smartsourcing Revolution Will Drive the Future of Healthcare and Refocus It on What Matters Most, the Patient. He is the founder of Delphi Group, a columnist for Inc.com, an adjunct professor at the Boston University Graduate School of Management, the founder and past Executive Director of the Babson College Center for Business Innovation, and past Executive Director of the Dell Innovation Lab.

Thomas Koulopoulos
Thomas Koulopoulos

David and David: Tell us a bit about yourself and your area of expertise.

Tom: I explore leading-edge technologies that are befuddling, confusing, and overwhelming; but my passion is really about how the future will change behaviorally, not technologically. For example, with COVID-19, I’m wondering if we’ll ever be comfortable shaking hands or hugging people again.  

David and David: What is a Brody Moment from your past?

Tom: I think there are two types of Brody Moments. There’s the “Aha! We have to change trajectory and direction,” and the “Oh Shit! We’re screwed” - there’s nothing about the current trajectory we’re on, the assets we have, our behaviors, or our frame of mind that will enable us going forward. We don’t just need a bigger boat. We need a plane or a helicopter.  

9/11 was an example of the latter type of Brody Moment for me. I remember one of the directors from my board at the time walking into my office before the second tower fell, and saying “You know what, this will all blow over.” My reaction was “How the hell is this ever going to blow over?” He was saying let’s just stay the course and we’ll be fine, when in reality at those kinds of moments, nothing about what you’ve done in the past prepares you for what will come.  

David and David: What do you think are some of the Brody Moments leaders are experiencing today?

Tom: Today’s Brody Moment is so much more pronounced than 9/11 because it will last so much longer. This one doesn’t have an end-point in sight and that makes it substantially different. Industries like retail and travel are facing enormous Brody Moments right now. Unfortunately, in both areas there will be significant casualties with no known solutions, because many companies can’t adapt their industrial-era frameworks into the future.  

It’s not just retail and travel. Companies in every industry are realizing that they will need to do much better scenario-based planning, given that we all did such a poor job of being ready for a pandemic. For example, I remember working with the board of a company whose one product was an event that was 80% of their revenue. I asked them what their Achilles heel was and nobody mentioned a scenario where their event couldn’t happen. When I mentioned that scenario, they said that there are situations that could result in fewer attendees, maybe, or a postponement, but they didn't want to consider the possibility that the event would completely go away. Good scenario-based planning stretches you until you break. The improbable won’t happen year after year, but you need to exercise that muscle in order to deal with high levels of uncertainty.

Another Brody Moment - which is really cool - is that this is finally giving us a sense of the enormity of the demographic shift in the world. An older population is a more vulnerable population, and this crisis is giving us a glimpse of what healthcare will look like in 10 years. In terms of the demographics of connecting, folks in the older demographic aren’t comfortable with virtual connections, but will do it if they have to. Those in their 20s and 30s, on the other hand, are infinitely more comfortable with this medium and they don’t feel the isolation as much. This crisis is bringing the severity of those demographic differences to light while also amplifying them.  

And of course, there is the change to a more remote workforce. As we’ve accelerated into that over the last few weeks, it’s been surprising to see that the technology has held up for us. We haven’t broken the internet, even in companies where 40,000 employees all went virtual within 24 hours. The issue people are seeing now is that we’re going to have to figure out how to create culture virtually. We’ve always done that face-to-face.  

David and David: What do you see ahead with respect to a “new normal” after the crisis is over?

Tom: There’s a school of thought that says once we’re through this crisis, we will be forced into forgetfulness. That would be unfortunate, because we are learning great lessons: how broken healthcare is and how dedicated healthcare workers are; the true power of virtual connections in organizations; how to work and collaborate remotely; and so on.  

Going forward, leaders must recognize that the current medium in which we’re working has a much higher potential for burnout, even higher than hours of commuting. I see people who are new to working virtually who are “on” 24/7 because of this, and they’re complaining about being constantly connected. The costs of this will be huge.  

Another lasting impact of the pandemic is that small and medium-sized businesses are suffering enormous economic damage – and this will have knock-on effects. I once asked Larry Ellison if it pisses him off that people don’t see Oracle as an innovator anymore. He answered, “I don’t want to be an innovator – I want to buy the innovators when they’ve proven their innovation is going to stick.” Large companies aren’t good at innovation, so they feed on the smaller businesses that are good at it. When large companies see that their innovation food supply is drying up, they will start paying more attention to how we innovate. The small, innovative companies that survive will be that much more valuable. Get through this period and you’ll have a whole lot of value for mergers and acquisitions.

Finally, I believe that some new industries will spring up as a direct result of this. These will be industries that take advantage of the fact that we can do more things virtually – events, concerts, and so on.

David and David: Any other advice you can offer? Parting words?

Tom: My one hope out of all of this is that we honor the many lives lost and the heroic efforts of our healthcare workers by not squandering this once in a lifetime opportunity to fix healthcare. If we don't, then COVID-19 is a glimpse into the future of a rapidly aging, more vulnerable global population.

Original article posted on Forbes on June 11, 2020

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