How to Turn the Pandemic into Opportunity for Meaningful Progress

Posted on: October 30, 2020, by :

Originally posted by Inside Indiana Business on October 29, 2020.

As organizations adapt to change brought about by the pandemic, many contemplate how long it will take for our world to return to normal.

Normal will be what we make of it. Our former ways of living and working have evolved in many ways to ensure public health is taken into consideration. What we used to consider normal may be forever altered. But I believe there are opportunities awaiting individuals and organizations that are worth exploring.

First, I’ve heard of many organizations who have successfully adjusted rapidly to change during the pandemic. They discovered that their teams were willing and eager to change their behavior when they believe doing so aligned with the organization’s purpose and livelihood. When this openness to change combines with people believing change is possible, change efforts can create powerful momentum. Early wins with tangible progress can be leveraged and practices put in place to sustain change. Eventually, desire for change needs translated into new guidelines and practices, and during times of unprecedented uncertainty, that only happens with effective leadership.

Additionally, it’s critical for us to understand which aspects of change we should embrace to support organizational development. When we think about change, many of us focus on what needs changed in the near term. And yes, we should act to support continued revenue and employment, but we should also enable the longer-term sustainability of our communities and society. But the leaders with the potential to impact meaningful progress may be ill-prepared to make decisions and implement the needed changes. We need to prepare them now.  

Second, organizational learning influences performance. Maintenance learning is for organizations who want to maintain the status quo. It is not uncommon for organizations to connect learning and development activities to performance evaluations and other measures. This practice often fails to account for the performance required to successfully navigate change. Maintenance learning addresses growth and learning related to performance gaps and anticipated activities. It doesn’t address developing the skills and abilities needed to adjust rapidly to change, embrace failure as a means of learning, or how to use design thinking to rapidly make ideas a reality.

Maintenance learning is inadequate for competitive organizations or even for organizations that simply want to survive or thrive during times of unparalleled change. Maintenance learning prepares us for adjusting to circumstances as they are, not how they will be. If we want our organizations to evolve effectively, we must use a combination of maintenance learning with innovative learning practices.  

It’s leaders and executive teams that decide how organizations prepare for and adapt to change. It’s directors and managers that work with individuals and teams to implement changes. Ultimately, it’s individual and team performance that impacts the position of the organization within the market. In some cases, leaders lack the vision to guide the organization in both the short-and long-term. Unfortunately, in such cases morale may suffer, especially among teams and individual employees—which makes sense given decisions made by leaders impact all levels within organizations.

The bottom line is this: opportunity exists to make meaningful progress in spite of the pandemic. If we want to future-proof our organizations, then we have to ensure our employees are prepared to thrive given their current responsibilities. We also have to prepare them to face the challenges and changes that will occur in the future. This involves ensuring our cultures embrace innovative learning—learning that supports the embrace of failure, collaboration to solve problems, and design thinking to rapidly make ideas a reality.

Finally, we need to be specific about the expectations for leaders. While the needs of organizations differ, some may need a leader to provide continuity and guidance in the near term and others may seek visionary leadership who can bolster short-term stability while preparing the organization to withstand turbulent conditions in the future. Every board should have established expectations for the organization’s leadership. Defining expectations that address the near term and the future, using data to inform decision-making, and ensuring the leader is the most qualified, appropriate fit for the position.

The past several months have proven challenging for us—the uncertainty, stress, and fear about the future have been intensified by the need to make decisions quickly, often with limited information or without precedent. The stories of countless organizations who have implemented changes quickly, while focusing on employee and customer safety, give me reason to be hopeful. If we can use leadership and learning as elements that help us endure challenging times, then this time in our history can be one that offers tremendous potential for individuals and organizations.

Tuesday Strong is a coach, consultant, and author at Strong Performance Management, LLC.