Like many people, I’ve been writing a lot lately about the pandemic and two of its biggest impacts on the business world, The Great Resignation, and the hybrid work model. It’s hard to overstate how much the last two years have changed how and with whom people want to spend their time. But as consequential as these shifts are, they are still outcomes – reactions to both technological developments and globalised work forces. Notice I didn’t say they are because of the pandemic. Nothing that happened on a day-to-day level in business during the pandemic was the result of a 2020 invention. The level of remote work opportunities during the pandemic was new. The surge in movement from cities to suburbs and exurbs was far higher than in many years. But actually, our post-pandemic life is mostly an acceleration of our pre-pandemic trends. While the public health crisis couldn’t be truly anticipated; the ability to transition absolutely could be. And those who do it well won’t just be ahead of the game; they will win it.
Companies who understand that transition is the competition will win the race.
Post-pandemic life is probably already here. The pandemic is still with us, but I think many of the major post-pandemic changes in our work life are already here. Companies that are still figuring out what to do “after” the pandemic are late to the game. It’s not surprising to me that a number of companies have announced they will have a primarily remote workforce permanently. . .over a year ago. What organisations need to do better is change. Not change for a specific event, just be able to change full stop. What is going to set apart the companies that thrive in the digital era of a globalised economy is transition efficiently to whatever the next thing is, faster than others.
The answer is not about learning from the past. It’s about understanding the future. This is hard – we still can’t see into the future (yet). And we learn in school – from grammar school classes to M.B.A. courses – by studying past models. We learn history so that we don’t “repeat our mistakes”. And I think that makes a ton of sense in our social relations, our foreign affairs, and our attitudes towards others. I don’t think it makes sense in building an organisation today that will thrive in 2035 or 2045. Instead of focusing on current solutions – Facebook (now Meta) advertising or standing desks or Zoom calls – companies need to prioritise how they anticipate and leverage change. Not manage change – leverage it, build and grow based on transition to the next thing. Change itself, and the ability to do it well, will be the competitive advantage. While watching change among competitors may be the traditional way to beat the market, the transition is the competition – anticipating and adjusting to change faster and better is the way to be the disruptor.
Agility and adaptability are the new core skill sets. So how do you plan for something that hasn’t happened? You create a culture in your teams that is constantly reconsidering how things are done, why they are done that way, and what is starting to happen. There are two core competencies to master here – agility and adaptability. They are similar, but not quite the same. Agility is somewhat structural in this context – there will be challenges to our supply chain in the future, how do we flex our needs and sources quickly and seamlessly? Whether it’s a challenge or an opportunity, your organisation’s ability to respond and leverage the time that the market is transitioning will set you apart.
Adaptability is more conceptual and psychological – and it’s actually even harder. It requires two things that are really difficult for humans — an almost constant relinquishment of 1) mastery of a task, and 2) control of a situation. Mastery of tasks is becoming the competitive advantage in an ever-narrowing group of skills. I recently had a conversation with my daughter about her post-university plans – specifically, whether or not the next step was graduate school. To me, it was a no-brainer – it would set her apart from the thousands of students who had only four years of study in her area. She could show employers that she had the ambition and fortitude to spend the better part of a decade learning her specialty. The problem is, she’s in a highly technological area that has only existed for a little more than a decade. She pointed out that by the time she finishes university most of what she’s learned will already be on its way to being obsolete. From that point on, she’ll learn the newest skills in her area on the job. And she’s absolutely fine with that.
But you can imagine how difficult that is for today’s leaders (and certain fathers) who spent years learning how to do things a certain way, getting really good at something and equating their value with the depth of their expertise. They may now feel insecure with having just a “decent” understanding of crypto or AI or NFTs — but new concepts and ideas are proliferating our lives (read: consumers’ lives) faster than anyone has time to master it. If you’re fully fluent in something these days, that thing is probably dying out. You must adapt efficiently, which means moving forward on partial information.
Things are out of control…get used to it. Related to this challenge is having a sense of control. You can’t really embrace change without constantly letting go of what you are currently controlling. Ask anyone who is hiring right now (and who isn’t?) – how little control employers have right now. It’s no longer just about money. Ask anyone who is in marketing right now – consumers pay more attention to what friends and family say (and Amazon reviews) about a product than the brand itself. And of course, this loss of control goes also for internal organizational change. To be truly adaptable, you must let go not only of where your team works, but if they still work for you, or have moved to another colleague…or a competitor.
You must not only accept that transition is the competition; you have to love it.
There’s a lot of upheaval in our lives, personal and professional, right now. And a lot of it we don’t – and shouldn’t — like at all. The last two years have been scary and unpredictable and relentless. But change in the business environment is not new; and it’s not going away. Unlike COVID-19, it is not something to grit our teeth and get through. Constant change has to become a given, like handshakes and hard currency. Or, ok, no… Leaders must set an example of complete comfort in the not-yet-quite known. They must be ok with a more basic understanding of concepts not fully baked. They must be nonplussed to wake up to a whole new way of working six months after the last whole new way of working. Eighteen months is the new five-year plan. For now.
In terms of my background and expertise, I have spent my entire career working as a trusted advisor to senior leaders wanting to improve the effectiveness of themselves, their teams, and their companies. Prior to starting my own consulting firm, I led the global executive assessment and development team for Cisco. Earlier in my career, I held leadership roles with RHR International, PepsiCo, Ashridge Executive Education, Hult International Business School, and the Central European University, Budapest, Hungary.