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We need to evolve from COVID crisis response toward futureproofing

By Andrea Kates

As leaders, we have choices about what back to work will look like post-COVID. There have already been inspiring examples of corporations, scaleups, startups, governments, community organizations, and local groups that have mobilized rapidly to respond with immediacy and energy to the crisis as it unfolded. Now’s the time to move out of the emergency response mindset and transition into a new mode that integrates the impact and implications of COVID-19 into our business DNA.

I argue that Post-COVID, we need to lead our companies beyond transactional adaptation toward transformative impact. We need to “futureproof”—envision a bolder future and mobilize efforts to get there.

It’s obvious that there are some aspects of business that can’t go back to “as usual”. The forcing function of the COVID crisis response pushed us rapidly into behavior shifts like these that were technologically possible and potentially even inevitable, but which had been lagging in their deployment prior to the burning platform urgency of a pandemic:

  • Work from home became a “do it,” not a “think about it” norm.

  • Hunger for reliable, coordinated data—to track transmission and protect lives—underscored the need for new infrastructure to knit together data sets from disparate, reliable sources. We realized that epidemiology wasn’t the only area where that type of coordination of big data mattered.

  • Education flipped. The paradigm of teacher as teller has been replaced by refreshing workarounds. Online engagement, global access to content, integration of gaming and virtual reality, collaborative learning, just-in-time content delivery have all been exposed as logical alternatives. It’s simply a matter of time before those workarounds become mainstream.

  • The world got smaller. It’s clear that borders of disease transmission can’t be closed. We clearly saw how differences in cultural and social behaviors affected health outcomes.

  • We learned to think twice about social proximity, open offices, shared space. We rethought our core assumptions about what it means to have human interaction closer than two meters apart.

Most dramatically, throughout the crisis, people died. A lot of people. We can’t just go back to work without acknowledging what that reality has done to our collective human spirit.

Ultimately, we have been reminded that our employees, customers, customers’ customers, supply chain, vendors, competitors are not just “economic units”. We are all...people.

I’ve observed early stages of inspired crisis response:

  • Creative shuffling of the deck: flour shortages solved; hair color sent home; restaurants pivoting to carry out; toilet paper to bidets

  • Outside-the-silo, proactive crisis response and collaboration: Zoom gave us an information infrastructure; Khan Academy supported school at home; Salesforce and Alibaba mobilized to deliver 50 million pieces of personal protective equipment; Luxury fashion brand LVMH shifted production from high end perfume to hand sanitizer; General Motors, Ventec Life Systems and Dyson manufactured ventilators

  • Ad hoc harnessing of the maker spirit: individuals engaged in mask making, creativity unleashed in at-home crafts, cooking and global concerts

  • Large-scale collaboration and cooperation: Healthcare experts around the world formed cross-border challenges to tackle vaccine development and epidemiological tracking

  • Initial back-to-work planning: Companies have created guides, handbooks and standards to help with the blocking and tackling of replugging our software, moving our desks, rethinking our work spaces, addressing challenges in many industries from travel to restaurants to healthcare.

  • The economic impact related to job loss; lack of income security; the breakdown of traditional supply and demand factors; and reconsideration of entire industries that once seemed to be daily “must haves” implanted itself as a fear about financial security worldwide.

Now, we must do more.

As we’re entering a post-crisis response stage, we have a singular opportunity to do it right. First, proactively sit down with our teams and take the time to “futureproof”—consciously acknowledge our new realities and envision the future we’d like to create. Then, engage in company-wide, concerted efforts to move through four levels of leadership beyond crisis response. We should use this moment to raise the bar on our aspirations and not simply go back to work, but multiply our long-term impact.

We need to apply four different sets of corporate muscles—representing four levels of impact—all at once. we should start at the top of that pyramid, rethinking our potential.

We can't afford to put transformation into a distant future, or exile a team working on that aspect of the back-to-work transition into the zone of "theoretical future thinking":

4. The top of the pyramid = A LEVEL FOUR QUESTION: How can we seed an ecosystem that addresses larger, core opportunities and societal impact? What are the second- and third-level effects of the shifts that have just occurred?

LEVEL FOUR APPROACH: TRANSFORMATIVE LEADERSHIP. Change the game. Lead as if our lives and our futures depended on our imagination and impact.

3. Next level down on the pyramid = LEVEL THREE QUESTION: How can we look across industries and outside of our swim lanes to advance our thinking and corporate impact? What are the second- and third-level effects of the shifts that have just occurred?


2. More operational level of the pyramid = LEVEL TWO QUESTION: How do we use what we've learned to do work better?

LEVEL TWO APPROACH: REDESIGN WORK. Acknowledge permanent shifts.

1. The most here-and-now level of the pyramid = LEVEL ONE QUESTION: What are the most immediate decisions we need to make to get back to work? How do we get back to net minimum?

LEVEL ONE APPROACH: TACTICAL LEADERSHIP. Back-to-work adjustments after the interruption.

Before we start to rebuild, re-measure, and relearn, we need to reclaim a North Star vision that is not simply business as before.

Who do we want to the post-COVID context?

4-3-2-1: A Simple Illustration of Four Levels of Post-COVID Leadership: toilet paper supply

4. Level four: Transformative Leadership can address global sanitation and water conservation.

3. Level three: Reimagine the Future teams can tackle water consumption and conservation.

2. Level two: Redesign Work initiatives can work on alternatives (e.g. bidets).

1. Level one: Leadership in the Back-to-Work mindset can solve the problems of replenishing toilet paper that’s been out of stock.

Finally, we need to acknowledge the human side of what we’ve all experienced

We haven’t been working from home, we’ve been living in life-work-home. We can’t un-remember the Zoom calls where we glimpsed into each other’s lives beyond the 9-to-5. We’ve seen each other’s dogs, kids, houses. We’ve all felt the fear of getting sick—or worse. We’ve been reminded of our vulnerability. Our economic stability disappeared. Gaps between haves and have-nots were underscored. The world became a place of uncertainty.

It would be tone deaf to go back to business as before.

There should be no “back-to-work.” Instead, we need to gather our teams to process the impact of what’s occurred and proactively commit to initiatives that address all four levels of leadership. We need to futureproof our organizations: embrace the post-COVID realities and insist on stretching our commitment to lead the future.

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