the pandemic and change

What the Pandemic Hasn’t Taught Us About Change

And What We’ll Need to Lead It in the Post-Pandemic Economy

When a hurricane is about to hit, we batten down the hatches. It’s a matter of whether we’re alive in two days…and whether our property survives.

When it comes to climate change, the level of urgency is just different. We aren’t going to be dead next week, so people don’t see the need for overnight behavior change. Things will change eventually.

In the area of organizational Change, many people I talk to see the pandemic as a massive inflection point. Corporate leaders say they now see just how capable and nimble their organizations are when it comes to change. Employees who in the past resisted change were moving with an urgency these leaders had never seen. These leaders feel they’ve learned how to drive real change, and they’re planning much bigger changes more often.

But the pandemic hit like a hurricane. We literally had to change things overnight or we would have been out of business. Our people could see the storm coming, so most moved with abandon.

The post-pandemic economy will be more like climate change, requiring sustained change efforts—efforts without the pandemic’s immediacy. Like implementing a new strategy. Revising our core values. Responding to new customer demands or competitor actions. Getting buy-in on a merger. Getting adoption of some critical new technology.

As much as we’d like these things to happen fast, our people’s world won’t be crashing around them, so there will be no feedback loop telling them they MUST go along.

So how do we respond as leaders if we want bigger changes more often? As someone who’s studied change since the late 90s while leading change successfully (and failing) in companies large and small, I’ll tell you the unvarnished truth: With the right leadership, our people have always been more nimble than we’ve given them credit for. It is we (yes, us) who need to work on ourselves first.

We need to ask ourselves some hard questions: How do I become less likely to allow a bureaucracy to stall change? Will I get my hands dirty and focus on inputs during a change, or sit in a conference room waiting for outcomes? How do I use pulling skills that reflexively help me avoid pushing change onto people? How do I listen first, before deciding on a change approach? Am I prepared to model my hoped-for change through thick and thin? Am I able to sustain a sense of urgency? Will I remember that my people are my only real leverage point?

These are the capabilities we need if we’re going to lead change successfully in the post-pandemic world. They look a lot like the skills we needed before the pandemic. So, if we really want to win at change, I hope we’ll focus on learning these skills rather than thinking we learned all we need to know during the pandemic.

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