Avoid the NEW Normal Trap. Think NEXT Normal

  • Observations

In six short months, a whole range of new pandemic-created words have entered our lexicon; COVID-19, self-isolating, social distancing and R-naught measures but the phase with an embedded mind-trap is “new normal”.

The world has started what will be infinitely more complex, ambiguous and difficult than was the move to lock-down in March. What lies ahead for leaders and their organisations is the labyrinthine process of navigating our way into new modes of life, business and economic health.

At CulturAlchemy, we have spent recent weeks connecting with executives and board members of our clients in the service of taking the pulse of corporate and government organisations and the economy more broadly. 

When in June, Australian states and NZ started to flag easing of restrictions, we noticed through our conversations that leaders almost universally, had shifted from “when things return to normal” to “when things settle in to a new normal” with an implicit acknowledgement that many things had shifted permanently….think office space design and use, airline and other travel, learning and development design to mention a few.

But when in late June, Victoria, Australia saw spikes in Covid-19 infections, we noticed that some leaders reading the landscape, shifted to a more adaptive setting. Rather than trying to predict ‘a new-normal’ state and adjusting strategy to that prediction, some leaders realised that a singular norm is unlikely at best, rather there will be a series of shifts difficult to predict.

Re-emergence or mutation of the virus requiring new containment measures, the end of economic stimulus measures, civil unrest, supply-chain vulnerability, trade tensions, cyber compromise and climate change events could all trigger shifts or worse still, combine to create a new crisis and challenge.

We have always promoted organisational agility, ingenuity and adaptability as being key planks of any organisations’ capability and culture but never more so than now. Adaptation is about responding to the next normal and in these dynamic times, we should wrangle with the question “is the word ‘normal’ useful at all?”

In 1963, Prof. Leon Megginson paraphrased Darwin’s Origin of the Species (and it is his quote that may be familiar) “It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself”. We contend that organisations do and need to, behave like organisms.

Since early in the pandemic, we have been developing and iterating a simulation which we have used with numerous CEOs and their teams. While the persona each exec plays and the scenarios we put them through are fictitious, the feedback has been that the simulation is often very “close to the bone” and causes executives to reflect on how their organisation’s culture has changed and how, when taking a different perspective, you realise that different people in different points of the organisation will experience the culture, even in similar circumstances, in very different ways.

What has emerged from these simulation exercises, as we reflect with these teams, is the emergence of another phenomenon that occurs in organisms that plays out in organisations. Homeostasis is the natural process of healing and literally means a ‘wish and an ability to return to the same state’. A month ago, we were hearing fabulous stories about remarkable speed of change, devolved decision making and uncommon collaborations that propelled our organisations into lockdown in March and April.

However lately, a number of executive teams have reported that in an attempt to revive or reignite the esprit de corps of early lockdown, in handing new work challenges to extended leadership teams, disappointingly they have been unable to recreate the speed and agility of recent weeks.

Our hypotheses are that the the lesser clarity leaders are able to now bring to what we face into, compared with a clear and present objective in lockdown, leave the same teams perplexed or seeking technical solutions for adaptive problems.

Also, leaders have been in lock-down for many weeks and remote working can be effective but tiring and more complex to maneuver around organisational systems and protocols. WFH fatigue could be a big factor.

As a one-time leader of the author oft said, “Just when you are tiring of speaking your message, they are just starting to listen” and Executives need to remind themselves that their thinking is often weeks ahead of the broader team.

As Justin Menkes proposes in his book “Better Under Pressure”; what sorts the wheat from the chaff of leaders is (and now I paraphrase) a subservience to purpose, the ability to spot patterns in chaos and pragmatic optimism.

So to minimise homeostasis, and orientate your organisation to the next normal or just what comes next, offer clarity where possible and show vulnerability when not, re-state your purpose and values, make your strategies dynamic and agile and make sure you know how your people are experiencing your culture as you adapt.