“Nothing will be more devastating to the future of any organization than its leaders failing to see this as a moment that requires new creativity and urgent action rather than turning to past playbooks and case studies.”
April 27, 2020
At Whiteboard, we’ve spent the past few months helping organizations of all sizes navigate the global crisis. From helping a Fortune 500 write their remote work playbook to helping a national conference pivot to a 100% virtual experience, from navigating an online fundraising strategy for one of the oldest nonprofits in the United States to helping a church movement pivot to a digital-first community, from grieving with friends who’ve lost family members or had to lay parts of their team off to seeing platforms we’ve been building for years meet real-time needs for others and get national attention—over the past several weeks, our team has jumped into the storm of COVID-19 head-first.
One thing has become immediately apparent—many leaders and organizations are trying to navigate this new paradigm with an old compass.
The global pandemic and resulting shelter-in-place orders have drastically accelerated the global shift to “digital-first” existence, forcing the people and organizations still holding out against digital-centric work and life to adopt these new behaviors almost overnight. Consider high-end restaurants pivoting to online ordering and pick-up only, schools across the world adopting remote learning and video conferencing and leaving the industrial-era education model beyond, or companies trying to continue enforcing “office hours” while their employees are home with their families just trying to make it through the day without the house burning down.
In the same sense that most of the world wasn’t prepared to handle a pandemic of this scale, many organizations also weren’t prepared to handle the forced shift to digital at this scale. This transition likely would have taken upwards of ten years or more to reach all parts of society at the pre-COVID cadence. Ten years in the digital universe is an eternity—just think about how much your life has changed since the original iPhone came out less than 13 years ago.
Across organizations of all sizes, many leaders are holding onto a nostalgic desire to quickly return to “normal.” Rather than seeing this moment as a catalyst to build a better future and an indictment against our failure to do so already, some leaders are viewing this moment as an attack on their status quo. And this is not a new tendency; as one of America’s founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, said in his autobiography several hundred years ago, “The best public measures are therefore seldom adopted by previous wisdom, but forc’d by the occasion.”
Nothing will be more devastating to the future of any organization than its leaders failing to see this as a moment that requires new creativity and urgent action rather than turning to past playbooks and case studies.
Our friends at Praxis captured this well in their recent article, Leading Beyond the Blizzard, Why Every Organization is now a Startup:
“We’re not going back to normal. If you’re a leader in an organization, it is time to rewrite your vision deck — that presentation so many organizations have that summarizes who you are, whom you serve, why you serve them, and what you do and how you do it…this is a time to urgently redesign our work in light of what we believe is not just a weeks-long “blizzard,” not even just a months-long “winter,” but something closer to the beginning of a 12–18 month “ice age” in which many assumptions and approaches must change for good.”
We’ve identified several patterns some organizations have exhibited over the past few months that are signals of navigating with the “old compass.” We’ve outlined some of these trends below so you can watch for these patterns in your own organization and help steer the ship toward the future instead of back toward the past:
Doubling down on a culture of probability instead of possibility
One of the tale-tale signs that leaders are not prepared for digital transformation is their propensity to focus on research and prediction rather than experimentation and iteration. Since “past results are not an indicator of future performance,” this pattern wastes valuable time and resources, while constricting the imagination and creativity of teams to only do whatever seems most reasonable to deliver on the promise of results they were forced to make.
There is no case study for this moment. None. The events are unique, the state of society is unique, and no one has been through this before.
Experimentation and real-time measurement are core tenants of a digital-first mindset and operating system. Organizations who engaged with imagination and moved quickly have been the best positioned during the Coronavirus pandemic. They are not afraid to try, fail, and try again. They aren’t looking to others to draft the playbook for them. Be like them.
Broadcasting instead of engaging
Many organizations that previously leveraged event gatherings at the center of their model quickly pivoted to livestream broadcasts instead of more natural human engagement through social media (including the original social media — the telephone). This has led to rapidly declining engagement of their fringe audiences and a deep sense of lack from their committed audiences. The world doesn’t need more noise. These brands are quickly being perceived as “preachers” at a time when people need “counselors.” The world is drunk on content and starving for relationship.
Rather than broadcast (which is the easy solution), organizations should be realigning their teams to engage with people as organically and naturally as possible. More two-way communication instead of one-way blasts. This means focusing on real, human, one-to-one conversations. It requires vulnerability and trust between your team and your audience. It requires leading with trust instead of skepticism. People are stuck at home, lonely, and desperate for connection. Be there for them.
The organizations that were already operating with this mindset or that quickly pivoted to it are seeing the strength of their communities grow. Large-scale viewership and the celebration of those big numbers are remnants of a bygone era of advertising where more eyeballs were an indicator of brand value. But now, alignment of values, personalization of experience, and depth of meaningful connection are the most important factors in an organization’s ability to grow its impact and add value to its customers and stakeholders.
Prioritizing short-term profits instead of long-term purpose
Hollywood is writing off 2020. The United States hotel industry has already lost more than $13 billion in bookings. Small businesses tapped out a $350 billion fund in a few days (and then additional $310 billion was granted a week later). Professional sports have been postponed. The Olympics has been rescheduled for Summer 2021. Delta Airlines reported their first corporate loss in 5+ years. United Airlines is forecasting a $2.1 billion loss. The National Restaurant Association expects the coronavirus will cause a loss of $225 billion and at least 7 million jobs. COVID-19 could cost the global economy more than $2.7 trillion.
How leaders and organizations navigate crisis reveals their true values, which are often not the ones listed in their employee handbook. True values like those of leaders who used surplus cash for stock buybacks instead of employee sustainability, organizations who wouldn’t allow their teams to “go remote” until they had employee monitoring software installed on computers employees would use from home, or businesses who have ample cash but are pressing to “help their employees” by reopening business in communities where it’s clearly not yet safe. When the compensation of a company’s chief leaders is tied more to earnings per share than the integrity with which they treat employees or customers, what else can we expect?
The organizations leading through this pandemic with a deep sense of purpose and genuine care for their team members and their customers are the ones who are weathering this storm with the least loss of talented team members, deepest customer loyalty, and strongest ongoing revenue. However, the companies who, pre-COVID, ran playbooks that valued operational efficiency, shareholder earnings, and predictable models over an unwavering commitment to purpose and care have been the ones to conduct the most layoffs, experience rapidly waning customer loyalty, and see their perilous visions of lucrative success evaporate in record time.
If this is you, take this moment to realize that your culture is fundamentally broken and is breeding fear instead of trust. In the midst of adversity, people don’t rise to the occasion—they fall to the level of their preparation. Fear accelerates the destruction of culture. Trust catalyzes unity, purpose, and growth. Be grateful that the COVID-19 pandemic has helped you realize this more quickly than you otherwise would have, hopefully before it’s too late. Write your own playbook based on purpose and empathy.
The last thing our world needs is to return to the past. Nostalgia, the pursuit of comfort, and tolerating the status quo are what allowed this crisis to reach the unprecedented scale it has, leading to great suffering in terms of health and lives lost as well as financial distress mostly affecting the populations who were already the most vulnerable.
As we were drafting this article, Marc Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz published a great perspective on our collective failure of imagination that made this pandemic so much more painful than it should have been. It’s worth your time. Marc says:
“Every step of the way, to everyone around us, we should be asking the question, what are you building? What are you building directly, or helping other people to build, or teaching other people to build, or taking care of people who are building? If the work you’re doing isn’t either leading to something being built or taking care of people directly, we’ve failed you, and we need to get you into a position, an occupation, a career where you can contribute to building. There are always outstanding people in even the most broken systems — we need to get all the talent we can on the biggest problems we have, and on building the answers to those problems.”
Now is the time to be more creative, not more restrained. More trusting, not more fearful. More empathetic, not more comfortable. More relational, not more systematic. More brave, not more cautious. More unique, not more of the same.
More pursuing of wisdom, not greater pride in expertise.
For a brighter future, not more of the past.