Disruption Reflections: Adaptability Matters

There are many lessons we can garner from COVID-19. And many myths dispelled. One aspect that is indisputable is that adaptability is one of the core principles that we must carry through. We have had breweries and distilleries manufacture hand sanitizers and our most elite restaurants offer amazing value via home delivery. What will people make of our age a decades hence? What will they find remarkable about the way we have all responded? Adaptability will be the skill that will undoubtedly be valued. A word I feel that will be more enduring than ‘pivot’. Today, the most important question for any organization will be: “are we changing as fast as the world around us? Change has changed. The vanguard is just as sususetible to disruption as it’s former victim.

Building organizations that are as resilient as they are efficient may be the most fundamental business challenge of our time.
We are uncovering more resilient ways of working and living as a global community. Through this shared experience we have come to value:

  • Personal relationships over processes. 
  • Authenticity and accountability over polish and promises.
  • Collaboration over competition.
  • Responding to change over following a plan.

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Processes and workflows are brittle. Interfere with any one piece, and the whole system breaks down. Think about the supply chain issues we may soon face, as meat-processing plants struggle to stay open while keeping their workers safe.

Relationships, on the other hand, are enduring. They are anti-fragile in that they can actually become stronger under stress. Although we don’t generally think about relationships in such a technical way, we’ve instinctively emphasized them lately, both personally and professionally. We’re reaching out, checking in, empathizing, and supporting like no time I can remember. If there’s a silver lining in all this, it might be the human connections that we’ve built and will benefit from for years to come.

For the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long, it’s really, truly ok to not be ok. We’re all processing day after day of bad news, and for many of us, it’s more than our emotional metabolism can keep up with. There’s no stigma attached to being real about how you’re feeling, how you’re struggling to stay focused, and how much work you can deliver. (At least, there shouldn’t be any stigma attached. If your boss is badgering you about your level of productivity at a time like this, you might need a new boss.) 

We’re also remembering, after years of seeing curated versions of others’ lives in our social media feeds, how messy life actually is. Kids are making “impromptu cameos” during our Zoom meetings, and our teammates see the dirty breakfast dishes stacked on the counter behind us. Yeah, it’s less than ideal. But so what? Substance matters more than appearance.

Now is no time for promises we can’t fulfil or a polished image that hides our imperfections. The more open we are with each other, the better we can support each other.

We’re facing a problem that is bigger than any one person, organization, or country. Nonetheless, we all have our roles to play. As communities, we’re teaming up to sew masks for local clinics and fetch groceries for elderly neighbours so as to limit their risk of exposure. Atlassian joined forces with partner companies and the Australian government to build a mobile app for sharing virus-related updates, which was delivered in just seven days. Even Apple and Google, fierce rivals in the marketplace on a normal day, are working together on technology designed to track and curb the spread of the virus by tracing who an infected person recently had contact with.

Despite the circumstances, it’s refreshing to see so much cooperation – among erstwhile competitors, no less. Maybe it’s too much to hope today’s togetherness will stick around when things go back to “normal”. But I’m crossing my fingers anyway.

No matter your industry, age, location, or favourite Bruce Springsteen album, we’re all getting a crash-course in adapting to change right now. Knowledge workers and the companies who employ us are embracing (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) remote work. Parents are learning how to be substitute teachers. Even hairstylists have gone virtual! 

Of course, those who can’t work at all right now face the toughest challenge: adapting to life on a much smaller budget. As much as we want to open businesses and schools back up, we’re being forced to take a wait-and-see approach. Planning on short time horizons is very “adaptive” of us, too. Balancing physical health with mental and economic health is no easy task. Responsiveness is key.

One model predicts the pandemic will peak soon, another predicts a much later date. Everyone wants to know when we can get back to something that resembles our regularly scheduled lives, but the fact is, we just don’t know. The reminder that we humans aren’t in charge of as much as we think we are is deeply discomforting. Humbling, too. Perhaps a positive outcome of COVID-19 is that next time we’ll be better prepared, both logistically and mentally.

Martin Luther King said many beautiful things and is guidance is critical in these times but throughout he inspired us to dream. Like MLK, we can dream too. We can dream of organisations that are forever looking forward and jump at every opportunity to better human condition. We can dream of organisations where the enthusiasm for change is palpable and pervasive, where individuals, ennobled by a sense of mission and unencumbered by bureaucracy, rush out eagerly to meet the future.

Killer Mike last night addressed the tragic disruption that is happening in the USA post the senseless death of George Floyd. He was clearly angry but like the Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottom’s implored adaptability over destruction. He kept reiterating: plot, plan, strategise, organise and mobilise. We can dream of organisations where the fearless renegades always trump the fearful reactionaries, where the constituency for the future always outguns the constituency for the past. We can dream of organisations where the drama of renewal occurs without the trauma of the turnaround. And, if we’re daring and inventive and determined, we can build these organisations. That’s what matters now.

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