It’s often the case that forced and drastic change to combat one problem can result in unforeseen benefits elsewhere. And so, it seems to be with the adoption of virtual working. What began, for many, as swiftly devised work arounds to deliver business continuity, has heralded a period of greater collaboration and creativity as organisations realise that the impossible is more achievable than first imagined.
And this is not just about converting old processes to a virtual identikit – it will be a real shame if we simply attempt to re-create what was there before. In our recent discussions with Chief Executives across public services on their perspectives of leading through CV-19, there is widespread agreement that, despite the difficulties and challenges still to come, there has been significant progress in bringing forward and delivering change programmes that otherwise might have taken years to progress. To explore this theme more, we have recently undertaken some research with CEO’s and HR Directors and results show a common desire to use this recovery period and create the space to pause from the recent past and re-think the future. For leaders, the question is how can organisations maintain this momentum and embed agility and these creative alliances forged during lockdown into business as usual? If the impossible can be delivered in a matter of weeks, then what other processes or cost can be curtailed as quickly and what new thinking and ideas can be accelerated.
One reason for this swift advance is that, for most organisations, lockdown meant that there was no option B and no safe retreat to more familiar territory. This gave little room for the doubters, the naysayers and the political saboteurs that can often stonewall progress. Equally, as everyone was affected, the re-thinking wasn’t the remit of a singular team or specialism - we all had to re-consider our approach and, more importantly, think around corners. Whether this was re-defining service delivery or simply determining a quiet workspace, everyone has had to challenge their personal norms and contribute.
With minds already open, technology has helped push the collaboration stakes far higher. Video conferencing has made it far easier to engage and reduce geographic and departmental boundaries. Not only have many teams found themselves talking more widely to people across the organisation, they have done it, literally, around the virtual kitchen table…or box room or spare bedroom. This blend of workspace and personal life – complete with pet video bombing and frequent (and often welcome) guest appearances from children – has perhaps helped to create a more informal, creative culture where people are less restrained in their thinking or feel more confident in speaking up.
Fostering a culture of wellbeing is central to achieving this bolder and more creative culture. In GS, we have been clear throughout CV-19 that our first priority is to protect our people and then to protect our business. We have encouraged debate and been open to the difficult questions. Our shared sense of ‘we are all in it together’ extends to the solutions we find. While leadership may have the responsibility to navigate the storm and harness ideas, solutions are borne of the collective thinking and individual inspiration of anyone.
But what about combatting the fear of failure? When you are looking over a lockdown precipice, then a fear of taking the wrong path, when there is only one to take, may not be the hurdle it can be in times of greater stability. ‘Be prepared to fail’ is easy advice to give but often hard to take when the world, increasingly, is impatient for immediate results. It is leadership’s responsibility to evaluate the risk, planning for both success and failure and adopting greater agility to assess, adapt and act quickly once the initiative is up and running. Knowing when to stop is as important as sounding the starting horn.
Too much deliberation and over engineered solutions can be another root cause for failing to make progress with new change initiatives. With lockdown that happened at such speed, however, then circumspection was never likely to be a problem. This is one lesson all leadership teams can take into their new normal. A laser focus, strong direction, shared commitment and consistent communication have, no doubt, helped those who have succeeded beyond their initial expectations. Re-building simplicity and a constant re-visiting of purpose into future execution, however complex the objective, has got to be a lesson carried forward to future innovation.
Perhaps the greatest risk organisations now face is the slow, almost unseen, pull back to old habits that will smother these enterprising shoots that have yet to take a firm root. In our survey, nearly 50% of organisations identified this tendency to revert back to existing methods as the main inhibitor to future change. Now is the time for leadership to make those old habits less comfortable.
If you would like more information on accelerating change programmes and developing a more creative Leadership culture, or would like to participate in our New Normal research, then please contact Barry McNeill at firstname.lastname@example.org.