Critical future factors for the next normal

David A Shore, Former Associate Dean and Current Faculty Member, Harvard University; Former Distinguished Professor of Innovation and Change, Tianjin University of Finance and Economics

This article explores critical future factors that need to be ingrained in the fabric of organisations on a going-forward basis.

We have certainly seen examples of both the successes and failures intrinsic in the management of the coronavirus crisis. When history books are written, the headlines will include the fact that COVID-19 was the disruption few adequately planned for. While this has proven tragic, it is not wholly unexpected. As a rule of thumb, we embark upon change initiatives knowing only about 20 per cent of the equation. The remaining 80 per cent is discovery. After all, change is an experiment. We don’t know what we don’t know, and for most people, the greatest fear is fear of the unknown. This is not a new nor unique phenomenon. People are people. Carbon and water. It has been more than two centuries since the Buddha spoke of this trauma which he called ‘the suffering of change.’ The Buddha observed that people suffer change for one primary reason – fear. The world is in fear of the invisible killer known as COVID-19. While the central theme of After Action Reviews (AAR) will likely be the seemingly capricious and occasionally Rube Goldberg-esque emergency management of coronavirus, one inspirational chapter will be devoted to the emerging art of saying ‘thank you.’

Canary in the coal mine

As medical and political leaders contemplate how and when we should exit the shutdown and migrate to a slowdown, this MedPol chicken and egg debate is replete with meltdown protagonists and antagonists. However, a common characteristic of successful change agents is that they learn for the future, they plan for the future, and they work toward making that future a reality. While the off-boarding strategy is more conflicted, there is far more consensus regarding the preliminary retrospective review of the global onboarding response. ICYMI — bad news doesn’t get better with time!

After the first alarms sounded in early January 2020 that an outbreak of a novel coronavirus in China might ignite a global pandemic, much of the world squandered nearly two months that could have been used to bolster stockpiles of critically needed medical supplies and equipment. A case in point is a memo by President Trump’s trade advisor Peter Navarro, in which he warned in late January that failing to mitigate the risk of a coronavirus outbreak could cost the U S trillions of dollars and place millions of Americans at risk of illness or death. The memo advised, “The lack of immune protection or an existing cure or vaccine would leave Americans defenseless in the case of a full-blown coronavirus outbreak on US soil.” The memo, dated Jan. 29, was the highest-level early alert known to have circulated in the West Wing (Haberman, 2020). It came as the administration was taking its first substantive steps to confront the crisis while the president was simultaneously downplaying the risks.

Gratitude is a win-win

Whether it be with signs, in song, in neon lights, or with parades, we have witnessed gestures of appreciation and admiration for the army of health care workers, first responders, and the multitude of other essential workers who have both saved lives and allowed life to be sustained. A pharmacy technician named Alyssa who valiantly worked 60 hours per week without adequate PPE is now my heroine.

While many leaders are keen to position themselves as ‘change agents,’ it is important to punctuate that there is nothing inherently good in change. Change simply means making something different, while positive change means making something better. Likewise, an ‘innovation’ is not an innovation unless it is perceived to add value over the existing it erations. One can only hope that conspicuous displays of gratitude have a longer shelf life than COVID-19 and live on as a meaningful legacy of this pandemic. It is not only the objects of our appreciation that benefit. Gratitude is a win-win. Gratitude is proven to make one healthier and happier.
Research indicates that gratitude in the workplace can also motivate, strengthen work cultures, and improve resilience (Grant & Gino, June 2010; Miller, MC, Posted 11/21/2012, updated 10/29/2015).

While such grand public displays of appreciation will wane over time, the lesson should not be lost. If kind gestures are to strengthen an organisation’s culture, they will need to become a habit. One way to start this new tradition is to have each employee commit to engaging in one act of kindness each day (e.g.: text someone on your team and tell them why you are grateful to them; better yet try an old fashioned handwritten note).Arguably, the most effective way to automate a habit is to make it part of a larger ritual. To set an actionable goal, try practicing gratitude at the same time every day. As we begin this new gratitude hackaday, it might also be helpful to leverage an app such as 365 Gratitude, which provides daily prompts. In my own work on strategic planning and guided implementation, I encourage organisations to embrace ‘gratitude’ as one of their core values. In light of the pandemic, I suggested to one organisation that they consider taking it one step further and embed gratitude into their KPIs. Gratitude is the quality of being thankful and represents a readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness. It helps people refocus on what they have rather than what they lack. In times of crisis this awareness often allows us to feel a little less helpless and hopeless. To the contrary, in the field of positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.

Harvey V Fineberg a former president of the National Academy of Medicine predicts, “We face a doleful future” (McNeil Jr, 4/18/2020). In times of tumult, both giving and receiving gratitude will be a welcomed component of the treatment plan for an unhappy population experiencing at best months of cabin fever or more protracted periods of isolation for the most vulnerable among us.

has fundamentally unsettled most every aspect of the organisation. During disruptive times, people find great solace in, and indeed crave stability. One might consider these as Type S or Static organisations. Type S organisations are reluctant to change established business practices, particularly in the midst of a crisis. The refrain is often, “we made a plan and we need to work the plan.”As one health care colleague wrote to the author, “given all that has transpired and needs to happen to make things normal, most healthcare organisations will not be thinking progressively. It truly is the time to reinvent and shape the future but this will require some very bold moves. Given the financial status of 99.9 per cent of hospitals, these moves require leaders who are not faint of heart.”

There are other leaders who see the possibilities that COVID-19 provides. They recognise that the greatest success is earned by those who are most adaptable. These business units and organisations look for first mover advantage. Type A or Agile organisations perhaps counterintuitively argue that you build greater organisational resilience by foregoing stability. Type A teams and organisations pivot current strategies to better reflect the new conditions.

This pandemic has demonstrated just how brittle our society and many organisations are. A microscopic virus has profoundly changed our lives, our economies, and our societies. This is when resilience – the capacity to adapt and bounce back – will be one of the most predictive characteristics that help organisations recover, if not renew. Perhaps organisations would be well-served by reinventing themselves as Type R, with a Resilientblended approach to change. A Type R-blended approach would include change initiatives designed to allow an organisation both bounce back and bounce forward.


What if we asked the question, “Who led the change initiatives in your organisation in 2020?A) CEO, B) CTO, C) CFO, D) Board, E) COVID-19. Some would argue the virus won’t transform their organisation, leaders will. However, a preliminary survey by the author finds the most frequent answer would inevitably be E) COVID-19. The novel coronavirus is instigating and accelerating change, innovation, and disruption in ways that were previously unheard of, and certainly were not captured in the organisation’s strategic plan. As one respondent put it, “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste and option “E” is serving as the enabler.” We know that often it takes a crisis to realign people’s mindsets and dampen their natural inclination to resist change, even when it is change for the good. What if COVID-19 emerges as one of the most impactful things to ever happen to your organisation? What if a virus turns out to be the breakthrough catalyst for enterprise-wide transformation? Every crisis has an end. How will your industry and your organisation be reshaped by the crisis, and what strategies should you pursue to emerge as a leader during the reconstruction phase?

The new post-acute phase critical future factor

This pandemic has demonstrated that no enterprise is immune from disruption and signifies just how brittle many aspects of civilisation are. A tiny virus has drastically upset every aspect of our lives. In a time like this, resilience — the ability to adapt, bounce back, and move forward at scale — will be one of the most important characteristics to aid organisations in recovery and renewal. The goal with crisis-instigated change is to shift from a reactive response to proactive planning. The coronavirus pandemic punctuates the need for an updated, heavily fortified and dramatically expanded dimension that is absent in all but a few strategic plans – emergency management planning. This Critical Future Factor (CFF) is developing a comprehensive plan to maintain business continuity. It is anchored by a Plan-Ahead Team (PAT).PAT is focused on forward-looking intelligence, developing scenarios, and identifying the options needed to act strategically and tactically across all relevant time zones – days, weeks, quarters, years. Along with PAT

Beyond strategic planning

At its core, the fundamental purpose of strategic planning is to transition a department or organisation from its current state to a future desired state. Among the guiding principles of Shore’s Beyond Strategic Planning model is a deep appreciation for the fact that change takes place across three time zones. Change initiatives benefit from being bookended on the front end by a retrospective review. Studying the antecedents allows the change team to have context and anticipate what might be. On the back end is the often-neglected phase of sustainment. The author’s Beyond Strategic Planning model includes a place of pride for the sustainment phase (Shore, 2020).

As the coronavirus maintains its grip on the globe, organisations need to triage their change initiatives, least they divert urgently needed resources. Preliminary questions include:

  • What should we stop doing?
  • What should we keep doing?
  • What should we start doing?

Keeping the ‘tude going all project long

We have also found that gratitude warrants a place of pride in successfully leading change. Change initiatives are all about dependencies – in order for one team member to do what they need to do another needs to do what they need to do. Expressing appreciation for good work can be a great motivator. On more than one occasion the author has witnessed frustrated and tired team members receive substantial solace from gazing at their change initiative’s gratitude wall. Beyond the core working team whose initiative is in one way or another driving the future, there are always a wide range of stakeholders who impact or will be impacted by the change. To ensure we thank everyone, I recommend change agent keeps a gratitude journal and thank every single person and department that played a role in launching, leading, and realizing value from each change initiative.

Change = Resistance

Another guiding principle is that inherent in change is resistance. This is clearly on display with the anti-quarantine rallies in which protestors decry that the US coronavirus lockdown is causing an economic and social meltdown. With any quantum change, the unit of measurement is the people. If you can’t change people, you cannot change anything. If you can’t break through long-standing resistance and silos, you cannot change anything. Further, walking among us are a remarkably high percentage of CAVE dwellers – people who are Constantly Against, Virtually Everything. You suggest a change, and before you can even finish, the CAVE people inform you of all the reasons why it is not a good idea in their organisation, municipality, state, province or country (Shore, 2014). To counteract those who are prone to reciting their ABC’s (Anything But Change), the author has developed an approach to managing change anchored by another set of ABCs – Applied Behavioral Change. As challenging as the medical and economic response to COVID-19 is, conspicuous by its absence is the fact that we did not mind our ABCs, which requires getting people and communities ready, willing and able to respond to change (Shore, et al, 2019, Shore, et al, 2019).

Type S vs type A organisations

With the coronavirus crisis dominating lives and livelihoods, important change initiatives are often relegated to a secondtier position. However, in times of crisis, perhaps change should be anything but second-tier. The differential response to the much-anticipated post-acute world has divided leaders and organisations into two very distinct realities.T here are leaders and organisations around the globe who are trying to ascertain how to move forward with “business as usual.”Like all good leaders, change agents understand a basic tenet of crisis communication which is that the first step in developing a message is to understand the moment. These leaders communicate with their workforce by promising a plan to ‘reboot’ programs, products and services that have been disrupted and to get things ‘back to normal.’Some place many decisions on hold preferring to play a wait and see game. These are perfectly understandable positions. The pandemic there must also be a RAT (Rapid Action Team) ready to jump into action on a nanosecond’s notice.

Successful leaders understand that while the virus may now be in the air, change must permeate their organisation long after the virus dissipates. While an organisation’s Mission, Values and Vision (MV²) will remain the North Star for most, strategic plans should be reviewed, reprioritised and rewritten. The scenario planning component of the Beyond Strategic Planning model should become an anchor of all strat plans. Further, scenario planning must include a healthy dose of business continuity, contingency, and succession planning, as well as other future-looking factors.

To be sure, the coronavirus has spotlighted the need for succession planning, which is often absent or a weak link in strat plans. All critical positions must have backups. Cross-training and redundancies are not optional. While higher performing organisations typically have contingency plans for the C-suite, what is often missing are backups for other key positions beyond the executive team. What happens if the virus attacks your payroll, benefits, compensation, or project managers? The succession planning section of the strategic plan needs to have a plan for people in these and other key roles deemed as organisational ‘essential workers.’ This work might begin by identifying critical roles and the employees necessary to keep your business solvent. Next, begin the process of naming and preparing an understudy. What needs to happen to ensure that the understudy is ready for prime time? In developing the emergency management succession plan, I often recommend looking outside the organisation. Consider retirees or former employees who may be ready, willing, and able to step back into their old shoes temporarily. Organisations may also be well-served by considering subject matter experts or Board talent as possible ‘swing positions. ’Regardless of the option(s) an organisation selects, some reskilling or upskilling will invariably be required. When stress testing the plan, it is important to run through realistic and black swan business scenarios. During these stress tests we often find that the battle-tested veterans are lower maintenance and perform particularly well.

Purple squirrels

During this pandemic, businesses are both dying and surging at the same time. How will businesses reinvent themselves and pivot to post-crisis mode? How will they retain their commitment to clarity of purpose while remaining united in their MV²— their true north? How does an organisation’s response to this crisis prepare for  the next crisis? As much as good should not be the enemy of great, even in times of crisis, urgent must not usurp important. A crucial lesson is that organisations need leaders who are ambidextrous. Leaders must be able to simultaneously manage the urgent along with the important. We need leaders who on one hand can lead change; while on the other hand can lead through change. We can refer to such leaders as ‘purple squirrels.’The challenge even for purple squirrels is substantial. Human beings reflexively migrate to what is urgent, foregoing what is important. As organisations prepare for round two of COVID-19 or an entirely new black swan event, applied strategic planning must transition from important to urgent. Although a rare phenomenon in nature and in organisations, purple squirrels do exist in both settings and are worth cultivating.

--Issue 49--

Author Bio

David A Shore

David A Shore is a former Associate Dean at Harvard University where he continues to teach and lead professional development seminars. He is on the External Advisory Board of McKinsey & Company focused on the implementation of innovations. Shore is Adjunct Professor of Organisational Development and Change, School of Business, University of Monterrey (Mexico) and the former Distinguished Professor of Innovation and Change, Tianjin University of Finance and Economics (China). Address correspondence to David A Shore

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