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. Governments are scrambling to mitigate the effects of the outbreak, and business leaders are rushing to protect their people, their customers, and their companies. For the next few weeks, we’ll be drawing on our deep knowledge base about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems, to offer you insights and advice about how to keep a steady hand on the wheel during the crisis, and how to guide your organization in its transition back to normalcy once the crisis winds down.
We have been studying complexity and helping leaders navigate it for nearly 20 years. While this crisis is absolutely unprecedented, all complex challenges – including this one – are best managed when you understand specific underlying characteristics they all exhibit, and tried-and-true ways to approach them. Today: How to channel forces emerging from the crisis toward positive outcomes.
In 1932, American philosopher, systems theorist, architect, and inventor, R. Buckminster Fuller said: “Don’t fight forces, use them.” His invention of the geodesic dome is a great example of this principle: the struts that make up the dome work in two oppositional forces - compression and tension - to make the overall structure both strong and light, and able to span a large distance using a lot less material than traditional shelters.
The coronavirus crisis has introduced forces that you can use to strengthen your company, despite how disruptive and uncomfortable they feel. Approached properly, they can make your business “lighter” in terms of business processes and day-to-day practices, improve how you deliver value to existing customers, or extend your reach to new customers and even to new markets. While these forces might seem like Fuller’s tension, threatening to pull your business apart at the seams, think about how they are also compressive in nature, potentially pulling things together. Don’t fight these forces, use them.
DON’T FIGHT THESE FIVE FORCES - USE THEM TO MAKE YOUR BUSINESS BETTER
Everyone in your organization is dealing with a new normal during this period of social distancing. They are isolated, confined to their homes, unable to do their usual jobs or connect with others in the usual way, worried about their finances, their health, and their families, and uncertain about how long this situation is going to last. There are a variety of new forces at play, and each one requires you to change the way your business and people operate. Let’s explore five of those forces, and how, instead of fighting them, you can use them to make your company better and stronger coming out of this crisis.
Work-at-Home Decrees and Travel Bans
While suddenly being forced to work at home is challenging, many people are talking about this time as an opportunity to reconnect with their families, establish new rules in the house for work/school hours vs. off-hours, and discover technologies that help them feel connected with those outside their four walls. Social distancing is forcing your organization - both the leadership team and employees - to figure out how to make work-from-home work, and it’s also setting an expectation (on both parts) that work-at-home options remain long after this is over.
This force is an opportunity to improve efficiency, reduce cost, and make your company a better, more attractive employer after this crisis has passed. You’re being accelerated into a new world that comes with many benefits. For example, this article’s list includes: Less time lost to commuting; a more productive, happy, and loyal workforce; a reduction in office space, office supply costs, and sick days; and, the ability to hire the best no matter where they are.
Furthermore, having been forcibly cut off from travel, people are learning that there are effective alternatives to planes, trains and automobiles when it comes to meeting with others. This discovery paves the way for more time and cost-savings, and a significant reduction in the associated environmental toll.
Starting now, think about how you can establish working at home and minimizing unnecessary travel as a permanent new normal. Pay attention to what’s working and what’s not, and put plans in place to make policy and technology enablers instead of barriers.
Suspension of Business-As-Usual
Many companies have experienced abrupt and imposed changes to long-standing processes and procedures. Disruptive? Yes. Bad for business? Not necessarily.
To cope, people are finding effective and efficient adaptations and work-arounds that might cost less, take less time, and/or require less red-tape. Positive deviance is likely in full bloom around your company, potentially resulting in streamlined solutions that isolate process steps that matter from those that don’t. Some changes might be unsustainable or result in intolerable risk - such as telling people they don’t need to complete timesheets during the crisis, or letting them source materials from unvetted vendors - but others probably should have happened a long time ago. Attenuate the former as soon as you can, and lock-in the latter before business-as-usual undoes all that great innovation. It’s a great time to grant empowerment and encourage and reward risk-taking.
Rapid Shift to New Technologies and Communication Platforms
Companies with digital transformation initiatives underway just got a shot in the arm. People are adopting digital solutions - both in their business and in their personal lives - at a staggering rate because suddenly they have no choice. Even if you could fight that right now, why would you?
And when it comes to heartfelt and transparent digital communication, both internally and externally, have you ever done so much of it, so well?
The proverbial old dogs are learning new tricks and we’re all getting good at effective digital practices maybe two years earlier than we thought we had to. Don’t view what’s happening as temporary - much of the shift that we’re witnessing is here to stay. Embrace all that change, or step aside to make way for those who are.
Now is the time to revolutionize how your company works. Now is the time to set the tone for the digital culture you need to thrive. Now is the time to invent and experiment with new digital products and services your customers will be demanding far sooner than you expected.
Stress, Tension and Anxiety
Look for the silver lining in the clouds that have gathered over us and you’ll see that while people are very stressed, tense and anxious, they’re also exhibiting some really great behaviors in response to those feelings. They’re being honest with each other. They’re banding together across silos for the common good. They’re establishing new levels of trust. They’re caring for each other. They’re caring for themselves.
You can’t fight the natural emotional and psychological toll brought about by the pandemic, nor should you try. You can, however, treat this as an opportunity to turn all of the resulting good behaviors into cultural norms.
To explore one example, being frank and honest in interactions with others is a great habit for your people and can be an invaluable cultural norm for your business. We have found that any meeting can be made better by introducing a critic role. Critics listen to the conversation in the meeting and intermittently, without interruption, offer frank critique about how people are behaving and what they’re talking about. That constructive friction, generated by critics, sets the expectation that people must be real with each other, without making it personal or insulting.
Introduce mechanisms like the critic role that will continue to advance frankness, honesty, collaboration and trust right now, while people are actively adopting and valuing these traits.
Guess what? While uncertainty is clearly heightened right now, it’s not something new. In fact, long before the coronavirus pandemic, we were living in an age of uncertainty, change, disruption, and turmoil. The difference was that it was not as acute and obvious..
As a direct result of today’s sudden and shocking uncertainty, you’re constantly thinking about what your employees must be going through and how you can better serve them. Because of that, you’re talking to them and reassuring them regularly. Shouldn’t you be doing that all the time?
Likewise, you’re constantly thinking about what your customers must be going through and how you can optimize the value you deliver them in this time of need. Shouldn’t that be standard practice?
Thinking back over the last few weeks, we’ve all been given a crash course on exponentiality. We now understand how little time it takes for something that grows along a power curve to leap from a remote possibility to an immediate threat - from an uncertainty to a certainty. Doesn’t that lesson also apply to how seriously we should take a new disruptive force in our markets, a new technology, a new workforce trend, or a new customer need?
Come to think of it, haven’t we been hearing scientists warn us about the exponential rate of the impact climate change is having on the planet? Are we now ready to believe that meaningful interventions are required right away, not in some far-off future that we’ll get to one day?
One thing is for certain right now: there’s no point in fighting the forces that are currently rippling through your organization. It makes much more sense to find ways to use them.
Original article posted on Forbes on April 6, 2020
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