Over the last few months, leaders have had a chance to respond to the impact of COVID-19. Plans for contactless service, process automation, remote work, Cloud infrastructure, and virtualization have been accelerated and implemented. While many businesses have closed and millions lost their jobs - many more have transformed and survived. That's all good news. But now we find ourselves at a precarious point. To call this brief respite from chaos - a 'new normal' - is to invite inevitable defeat. The only question that matters now is: where do we go from here? Without a new plan for the future, we may discover that the real crisis is yet to come.
Magical thinking is dangerous, especially now. It has become fashionable to focus on the upside of pandemics. Many (myself included) have argued that following the Spanish Flu of 1918, there were scientific and social reforms, including the rise of epidemiology, public healthcare, and universal suffrage. Similarly, after the Black Death, there was the Italian Renaissance and a breakdown in the feudal system. Some also attribute the rise of e-commerce giants like Alibaba and JD.com to the conditions created by the SARS outbreak in 2003, and the exponential growth of Starbucks and American Express to opportunities opened by the financial crash of 2008. That would all be a neat theory, except for one problem. Crises are typically necessary, but not sufficient conditions, for radical change.
Before we start naively hoping for a second Renaissance, a Universal Basic Income, or the office's permanent death, it is worth thinking about causality. What exactly changed in 1353, 1918, 2003, and 2008 - that created the conditions for radical transformation? How strong is the link between pandemics and economic collapse with the subsequent change, growth, and innovation? Does a crisis itself drive creativity, or does it merely reveal good ideas by the grim process of wiping out alternatives?
In my view, you can only take the argument of necessity and invention so far. The companies that thrive after a crisis are no accident; they the result of thoughtful decisions, resource reallocations, and deliberate business design choices. What decisions did Alibaba, JD.com, Starbucks and American Express make that set them up for later success? In simple terms, they did more than learn to survive; they scaled their learnings into entirely new technologies, business models, and organizational forms.
We have already learned a lot this year. We discovered that automation is essential if you want to keep factories running and essential services functioning, that human civilization is impossible without resilient, adaptive supply chains. We learned that we could work from anywhere and that many of the impediments to eliminating paper-based approvals, antiquated workflows, and legacy systems, could be overcome when there was a good enough reason. But have we learned enough to reinvent ourselves for the long term?
Despite the stock market's exuberant run and the rising fortunes of the more obvious beneficiaries of the pandemic economy - this is just the start of a much more significant shift in the way we work and how we live. Even if they have suddenly started using Zoom to run their meetings and Slack to annoy their employees, many organizations are still stubbornly analog, hierarchical, siloed, and blind to machine intelligence's potential to revolutionize their decision-making. The hard yards of transformation still lie ahead of us, which means that leadership is more important than ever.
Thriving in the post-pandemic world demands a very different type of firm. More digital and distributed, more autonomous and resilient - faster, agile, creative, and designed to learn constantly. We have made some progress lately towards this, but most of us are far from where we need to be.
Here are three questions you should be asking right now:
1. How do we engage?
What is your new plan for engaging your customers and accelerating growth? Digital alone is not enough. If you haven't already virtualized your sales and service channels, you are probably no longer around. What is the next big idea after contactless delivery? How will you incorporate AI and algorithms to creating more personalized, natural experiences? Have you experimented with Natural Language Processing? With AI and 5G powering new kinds of devices, and Apple on the verge of releasing their AR glasses, do you have a plan for XR?
2. How do we work?
Remote work was just the beginning of a much bigger shift. How do we collaborate in the post-pandemic world? What kind of operating model should we adopt? Can you adopt a more lightweight asset structure? How do you build organizations that are resilient, agile, and distributed? If culture is your operating system, how do you refactor it to work in this new environment?
3. How should we lead?
What will it mean to be a leader in this new unpredictable age? In fact, how do you even lead people when there is no one physically around? What are the new mindsets, capabilities, and skills that we need in a world of smart machines? Is the measure of a great leader different now, than it was in 2019?
There are no easy answers to these questions, and in a way, that is the point. A real plan for the future is more than a path to recovery - it is an invitation to reimagine, reinvent, and redesign.
Further resources and reading
I'm spending a lot of time talking to leaders like you, collecting stories and case studies about reinvention - and will be sharing my progress and ideas with you as I go. In the meantime, here are a few resources that might help you stimulate the right conversations in your organization:
- My recent collection of articles for the Harvard Business Review on transformation and change
- My digital keynote, 'New Rules For A New World', is available to screen to your team or your customers. It specifically addresses the learnings from the crisis and what some of the world's top organizations and leaders are doing to reimagine themselves.
- I continue to publish weekly many of my research conversations with leaders and scientists in my podcast, Between Worlds
- My book, 'The Algorithmic Leader: How to be smart when machines are smarter than you' - which, although released in 2019, is probably more relevant now than it was then.