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Why it’s important to have a routine for change

The ability to keep changing is a skill like any other. The more you practise it, the better you become at it

As the country went into lockdown overnight, businesses were forced to quickly develop a response. It was clear that for many businesses the response would mean a sharp departure from business as usual.

Most leadership teams had no previous experience of anything quite like this. In private conversations, senior leaders shared how different this is. Yet with no previous experience of what to do when everything changes, many organizations did find their way to do amazing things at a speed that even they were surprised by.

This could all be simply a series of events that happened in a moment of time, and as that moment of time passed, the events became just a memory. Or organizations could use this as an opportunity to further hone their responsiveness.

For those who succeed, the crisis could prove an important training for future change. A stream of research shows that organizations which are successful at navigating change have routines for change they regularly practice.

The ability to keep changing is a skill like any other. The more you practise it, the better you become at it. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that like many other skills, it can be developed and honed.

While in this case, the pandemic and lockdown acted as an external shock that required an immediate response, there will be many more external shocks in the coming years. The twin forces of exponential technology and globalization mean that the world we are living in is changing faster than ever before, and this needs organizations that can keep pace.

If we can learn the art of being agile, we emerge from this crisis stronger than before. So, what has characterized great responsiveness?

One is a leadership commitment to something bigger than the crisis. This may have been commitment to a belief in helping society, like repurposing factories to make sanitizers, or it may have been a commitment to a long-term strategy such as bringing fitness to every home. A strong shared commitment is energizing and provides an anchor in uncertain times.

An eagerness to experiment is also integral to adapting and responding. If something sounded like a good idea, leaders were keen to try it out. Unlike traditional strategy discussion where much information was needed for decisions, they seem to be inclined to give good ideas a shot to see where they go. This is coupled with quick, frequent check-ins to maintain momentum in the team, and having short meetings for brainstorming, sharing information and decision-making.

To do this, leaders create an environment of psychological safety that makes it easy to express new ideas. We now know that this is key to organizational responsiveness because people hesitate to offer any ideas, particularly different ideas, when they fear ridicule or indifference.

This ties into being comfortable with walking through the fog to find answers. As the crisis unfolded, no one had sure answers, and it would have been a mistake to pretend otherwise. The most responsive organizations were able to accept the fog and continue on within it.

While leadership team members represented an area of expertise, they were also comfortable putting that aside while searching for a solution. This allowed a chief human resource officer to have been part of finding a business solution, or a manufacturing head suggesting new products. Holding roles lightly allows a far faster pooling of expertise.

This, of course, leads to high levels of energy and pride about accomplishment. Some of the leaders I spoke to were almost bursting with pride at how quickly they had accomplished so much. “We have done in just four weeks what our founders expected we would do in four months".

As businesses open up, some organizations will return stronger than before. They have understood how to create the culture and rhythm for creative responsiveness. Others may just return, with few lessons learnt and with a desire to get back to the way things were. Which one will you be?

Shalini Lal is the co-founder of Unqbe, a think tank and advisory firm focused on the future of work.

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