A premise of our “Build Back Better” focus du jour (actually, du l’annee) is that we’ve already drastically changed many things about how we conventionally worked, so we can change more.

McKinsey has also been thinking (and writing) about this topic, and in “Reimagining the post-pandemic organization,” they offer some highly optimistic news (emphasis ours):

It’s said that the worst of times brings out the best in people; as it happens, this is true of organizations as well. All over the world, companies are being challenged by the COVID-19 crisis to find new ways to serve their customers and communities. Many are rising to the occasion. Almost every leader we speak with has an inspiring story of radical, positive change in how work gets done and what it can accomplish. Here are a few examples:

  • A fast-food chain that had to shutter its operations avoided layoffs by partnering with a health and wellness retailer, thus helping the retailer meet spiking demand in a newly designated “essential business.”

  • One large retailer dusted off a pre-pandemic initiative to launch a curbside-delivery business. The work plan said 18 months. When the lockdowns hit, it went operational in two days.

  • A financial-services company transitioned more than 1,000 of its global operations staff to work-from-home arrangements, equipping them with new technology within 72 hours to ensure business continuity.

  • A retail conglomerate in the Middle East retrained 1,000 people in two days, redeploying them from a suddenly stagnant business (movie theaters) to a booming, critical one (grocery retailing).

Of course, some of these outcomes might simply be from “organizational adrenaline”—heroic efforts that are unsustainable. We know that many people are working harder than ever and risk suffering fatigue and burnout. However, we also see signs that the opposite is happening. Amid the fear and uncertainty, people are energized as companies make good on purpose statements, eliminate bureaucracy, empower previously untested leaders with big responsibilities, and “turbocharge” decision making. As one executive we spoke with observes: “Our senior team meets every morning for 30 minutes. It’s incredibly productive. We make decisions and go. We don’t have full information, but that’s OK—we can’t afford not to move.”

The subtext of comments such as these is a recognition of previous dissatisfaction. Organizations felt too bureaucratic, too insular, too inflexible, too slow, too complicated, and often more focused on profit than on people.

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic shock have changed none of these things and, at the same time, have changed everything. Inertia is clearly riskier than action right now, so companies are mobilizing to address the immediate threat in ways they may have struggled to when taking on more abstract challenges, such as digital technology, automation, and artificial intelligence (all of which still loom). Bold experiments and new ways of working are now everyone’s business. Will the new mindsets become behaviors that stick? We don’t know. Did it take a pandemic for organizations to focus on change that matters? Too soon to say. Still, as one leader we spoke with puts it, “How can we ever tell ourselves again that we can’t be faster? We have proved that we can. We’re not going back.”

Jeff Bezos (who else) made the same point in a recent article in the WSJ:

“Being wrong might hurt you a bit, but being slow will kill you. If you can increase the number of experiments you try from a hundred to a thousand, you dramatically increase the number of innovations you produce.”

Ten weeks ago I would have declined to present these observations to Law Land, on the ground of presumed futility.

Today I am vastly more hopeful, and, I would like to believe, I have more to base it on than my own incorrigible optimism.

Like what?

Like how powerfully and immediately everyone stepped up to the plate, not just accommodating to but embracing sudden and drastic changes imposed (essentially) without warning, and has begun performing at new levels.

Another hopeful sign is that people–from leaders on down–are talking openly and unabashedly about their firm’s purpose and identity and their desire to be there for clients and each other.  McKinsey urges leaders to “take a stand on purpose,” for many reasons:

  • At the risk of treading on Oscar Wilde’s famous remark that “conscience is the still small voice whispering that someone might be watching,” simply because people (clients, professionals, staff, competitors, communities) are watching and memories are long.  Hard as it might be to believe on some days lately, we will emerge from this and people will know whether your actions stemmed from short-term greed and fear or long-term empathy and determination.
  • Organizations with a strong and shared sense of purpose are virtually certain to weather this better than most.  Alain Bejjani, CEO of Majid Al Futtaim (MAF), a Dubai-based conglomerate housing shopping malls, leisure, and entertainment, goes so far as to describe that firm’s organizational vision of “creating great moments for everyone, every day” as a “social contract” based on everyone’s voluntary decision to be at MAF together.   “It is like a marriage in this way. A company is not a company unless it is underpinned by this desire to be together.”  Did you every think of analogizing your firm to a marriage?  I submit it’s worth pondering, if you haven’t.
  •  Speaking of exercises you can do at home, how’s this:

One simple yet telling exercise we’ve conducted with senior executives goes like this: take scraps of paper and copy down half a dozen corporate statements about culture, lightly anonymize them to remove obvious mentions of products or markets, and then see who can pick their own company’s statement from the pile. The result is often humorous, revealing the extent to which companies “talk a good game” about culture, often using precisely the same language.

No one’s laughing now.

And I’ve saved the most challenging for last.

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