Are you and your business hunkered down waiting for the “new normal?”
Forget about it. There is no more new normal. There is only a New Next.
We will emerge from this COVID-19 fueled economic crisis to find that some things look familiar, but that nothing is the same. A sense of “normal” won’t return any time soon. Perhaps it will never make a comeback.
The concept of returning to a more stable state of “normal” is reflected in Kurt Lewin’s classic change model of Unfreeze — Change — Refreeze. The idea is that change occurs when you unfreeze a situation, effect the change, and then refreeze to a new state of relative stasis.
But the idea that you can refreeze a change to establish a “new normal” was questionable even before the COVID-19 crisis. You were already experiencing change and disruption in technology, business models, competitors, and customer expectations. Rather than refreezing, things seemed in constant flux. But the idea of refreezing to a new normal completely lost its relevance when the COVID-19 virus proved that the world economy could be decimated in less than eight weeks.
This carnage happened at such a rapid rate that I imagine the virus boasting to friends, “You think it takes months or years to bring the world to its knees? Here. Hold my beer.”
The result is an economic environment where there is no time to refreeze and solidify any change or new idea. The best we can reasonably expect to achieve is gelatin that wiggles around and then melts in a constantly evolving pattern.
How Great Companies Will Continue to Win
The consensus going into 2002 was that it would be a difficult year. The dot com bubble had been bursting for months, the telecom industry was imploding, and the United States was reeling from the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Herb Kelleher, legendary founder and CEO of Southwest Airlines, was asked what kept him awake at night in a Fortune interview that ran on January 8, 2002. Here is what he said:
“So my biggest concern is that somehow . . . we [at Southwest Airlines] lose the esprit de corps, the culture, the spirit. If we ever do lose that, we will have lost our most valuable competitive asset.”
Kelleher was right then, and it is true today. When you’re leading a company, culture always wins. Even if you have a great strategy. As Peter Drucker is credited with saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”
In today’s world, culture eats everything for breakfast.
A compelling culture that flawlessly executes while you anticipate, adapt, pursue, and even ignore change in pursuit of your New Next will be the difference between continued excellence and irrelevance or even extinction.
What a Culture Equipped for Constant Change Looks Like
The culture you need for your business to flourish is built on the foundation of what has worked in the recent past. It is (1) customer-obsessed, (2) values-aligned, (3) results-focused, and (4) people-centric.
Those elements, however, won’t necessarily equip you to execute at the level you need while remaining nimble to changes in the absence of a coming, predictable “new normal.”
That will require additional elements that you may have already addressed: the need to be (5) data- and process-driven and (6) change-ready. These elements are accelerators for your operation as it copes with pressure, and the COVID-19 virus is the ultimate stress test .
But, as we move into a New Next era, your culture will requires a further two elements. It must be (7) future-focused and (8) collaboration-enabled.
A future-focused culture resembles the scouts who worked for the wagon trains as the West was being settled. Every day they rode out over the horizon in search of two things: Where are the hostiles that have the potential to do us harm? Where is the water that will sustain and fuel us on our journey?
Meanwhile, a collaboration-enabled culture actively seeks and utilizes different perspectives and experiences to reach innovative solutions to challenges and work seamlessly together when crisis arises.
When a culture incorporates these eight elements, it will truly be prepared to set itself apart in coming months and years.
Where to Begin
Stephen Hawking began his book A Brief History of Time with the retelling of an anecdote that has been around in various forms since the late 1500s.
After a presentation on the structure of the solar system by a leading astronomer, an elderly lady confronts the presenter to disagree with his assertions that the Earth is a ball orbiting the Sun. According to her, in the Hindu tradition, the world as we know it rests on the back of a giant turtle.
When confronted with the obvious question about the platform on which the turtle is standing, the lady confidently replies, “Its turtles all the way down.”
We know that this explanation of cosmology doesn’t hold up in the face of reality. On the other hand, the first step in transforming your culture for the future might be as simple as this: It is leadership all the way down.
Equip leaders at every level with the expectation, definition, processes, and competencies to lead in the New Next. Great cultures can theoretically exist without universally great leadership. Experience shows, on the other hand, that great leaders are the catalyst for cultures that lead to positive change and exceptional results.
We’ve survived uncertainty and upheaval before. We will do so again. When we do, we’ll have a renewed awareness that a new normal could be years away, if it ever arrives. There will always, however, be a New Next.