Known Unknowns

As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.
-Albert Einstein

Silver Linings

TL;DR

The COVID pandemic has created an unprecedented opportunity to explore new ways of working. Where large scale transformation programmes have traditionally failed, a forced change in work that ignores existing culture, is irreverent about budget planning, bypasses leadership personalities and shares no personal biases about what it means to be ‘productivity’ gives us a test bed for new ways of working. We should seize this opportunity as best we can.

TS;WM

Author’s note: Obviously this post is coming from a privileged view. I have a job that affords me the ability to work from home. I write this on the assumption that most people reading this are in similar situations to my own. If you are someone who is still in work, please be safe, but let me know if your routine has had to change and is that for better or worse. Hell,even if you are working from home. What do you think of it? If nothing else, you can vent to me, I would love to hear your views.


I wrote early on in my blog life called When We Do Things Right. It explored how company culture should just absorb change and keep moving, evolving over time. Not to dwell in the grim reality of COVID, but imagine your organisation as a single cell organism. It will do what it does until some stimulus prompts it to change. If you are a drug that seeks to change the cell (let’s go with that at this time shall we) you work with it, convince it you are its friend, once it trusts you you enter it and propagate the change. That cell is now different and will be when the next change comes. However, if you are an allergen or an invader that seeks to damage or do something the cell doesn’t want it reacts negatively, summoning antibodies to defeat you. In my old post I referred to the Futurama quote which I still think it is perfect for our drug analogy;

If you do things right, people won’t be sure you’ve done anything at all!

I hope this analogy holds up and has not upset anyone, but business change is like this. It has traditionally been slow, graduale and won by our ability to influence upwards. And over time, usually a lot of time, the change will start to be seen. Too much too fast and it all falls apart.

Enter, transformation! The virus part of our analogy. The too,much too fast, too different and wasted much UK time, money and energy in the post 2008 financial collapse. Transformation was an opportunity to do things differently but 70% of projects failed. I believe, in part, because the threat that prompted the change wasn’t as vivid as it is today. Losing an income stream, laying off some employees, not getting as much support for the government; while all difficult, are not always life and death for most of us let alone CEO’s or board rooms. Those are the people you need to convince to do anything. COVID on the other hand doesn’t care if you have a health income stream, your pension is secure, or that you had a healthy supply chain. We are all equal in its anthropomorphized eyes.

So this is a period that it is hard for top offices to ignore. You can’t just lay off a bunch of people (which many companies have done) wipe your hands and keep moving. You can’t go into work, your supply chain is busted, your employees might be sick, you might even be sick Mr/Mrs six figure salary! And so rather than the window dressing of “a nice to have” transformation programme, “doing more with less,” and all that bullocks, we have the existential argument of “we better do this remotely because I don’t wanna be next.” That threat, that urgency and pressure changes everything. And while COVID is not a perfect comparison for transformation it has done a lot that transformation never did:

  • It’s spurred organizations to digitize faster;
  • It’s promoted flexible working;
  • It’s forced us to learn to forecast and understand ‘worst case scenario testing’;
  • It’s promoted technology literacy across all generations;
  • It’s changed service delivery methods to decentralized models;
  • It focused top offices on critical functions and decision-making at the core of their business ;
  • Stripping the fat and bureaucracy from the process that allows people to spend less time in meetings and more time doing!
  • etc, etc…

These are just some of the benefits, all related to social distancing / sheltering in place. COVID did more for the transformation movement in two months then what transformation ever did over years. All because the threat landscape changed. If only we could apply that same vigor to climate change without a catastrophic event…

And the changes won’t stop coming because the normal we had is broken, irreparably. Companies realize you can decentralized operations and still be productive , give people a greater work life balance (such as it is) and they can be happier and healthier, technology literacy is up! This is a time where we are both encouraged and able to create innovative solutions to our broken business as usual.

While we recognize the tragedy this pandemic as wrought, let’s try to find that silver lining of setting our future towards happier more productive humans at work.