The COVID-19 Crystal Ball
Collectively, and in a matter of days, the world undertook a digital transformation. We did what digital experts only recommend for small start-ups – a ‘flick of the switch’, top-down approach to ‘becoming digital’.
We redesigned our operating models, converted our business processes, and perhaps most significantly, we transformed our SELVES into virtual analogs.
For many organizations, this change has been pursued for years. Terms like ‘digital first’ and ‘agile’ pervade organizational vernacular; and for some, that’s where it has stayed. This shared moment of crisis has expedited a conversion that has, until now, failed 70% of the time – even without the economic and social uncertainties of COVID-19. Making it harder, still, is that we are apart.
A number of excellent organizations have published economic projections, outlining numerous possible scenarios and suggesting best responses. These offerings can bring a sense of relief, as the data modelling and expertise behind their recommendations give them a sense of reliability beyond ‘best guesses’.
There is no denying that data are among our greatest assets. The importance of these assets is amplified by our collective need for certainty in the face of unprecedented ambiguity and discomfort, increasing our vulnerability to the quantification bias (treating numbers as objective and privileging quantitative data over other sources of information). Data change, models change – especially when these models are built in real-time. Predictions are guesses - educated guesses – but, still, guesses that rely on the actions of (unpredictable) humans.
There’s no ‘right way’.
As organizations are pressed to use this plethora of data, models, predictions and expert recommendations to pivot; to address the current crisis while future-proofing for what might come next, many are feeling the pressure to get it right. But we are in uncharted territory - no one has actually done this before. It is not the financial crisis of 2008, nor is it the Great Depression. There isn’t a right or wrong way – there are, simply, ideas. And as the landscape continues to evolve, there will be many more.
We have permission to try…and try again.
An agile organization is characterized by the cycle of innovation, creation, testing, and adaptation. There is never enough time to do it exactly right, but always enough time to make it better. It’s a term that, like digital, floats through most organizations with only a few operationalizing its ethos. Before the pandemic, risk aversion, bolstered by the certainty about ‘what worked before’ undermined efforts to embrace a culture of innovation. Now, what worked before doesn’t hold, and while that is discomforting, we’re also freed of many assumptions.
Perhaps for the first time, we have the latitude to try, test, and see what happens. This is true not only of the ‘solutions’ we develop, but the ways we conceive of, approach, collaborate on and tackle the problem. We have permission to ‘not know’, to try, and then to try again.
Go slow to move fast.
The abundance of information on a 24-hour loop creates a sense of urgency that implies we are behind. In fact, the data are behind: between the incubation period of the coronavirus, and variations in testing, treating and reporting practices, we are forcibly looking in the rear-view (at best the side-view) mirror.
In light of this truth we are encouraging organizations to do three things:
1. Focus on your people
2. Prioritize internal data
3. Measure like you’ve never measured before
#1: People over productivity.
Trends in organizational development have pulled us towards imagining a future of work that centres on AI, shifting us to lead people in service to process. Our quantification bias has led us to dissociate our data from the humans they represent. This crisis has been a stark reminder that organizations are living organisms comprised of real people, and without the people, organizations don’t exist.
Our choices must begin and end with our people; their wellness predicts organizational survival - not wellness according to the organization, but according to the individuals who comprise it. The accountability of the organization is to connect to its people, to invite continual feedback and assess how well their support is working. Wellness, especially now, is not an achievement, but a dynamic practice that shifts with context. Organizations must be responsive, accepting that the needs of their people will change, recognizing that without making this investment, none other will matter.
#2: Prioritize internal data
External data about the economy and the COVID-19 landscape provide the backdrop, but the internal data of the organization is a measure of its health. External data provide indices of where, how, and when the organization might be impacted, but say little about whether, how and why that is. Whether your organization is challenged by or prospering in the pandemic, it is critical to become familiar with how those changes are reflected in the data – and where the organization has blind spots (hint: it’s probably in your people insights).
Most organizations rely heavily on lagging indicators – late-stage measures that reflect the outputs of a process over time. Intermediate measures and leading indicators that track the directional changes preceding major KPI impacts are often undervalued, or even missing. This is where organizations need to focus now – they’re the crystal ball.
Importantly, this crystal ball needs to examine the whole picture, which means not only incorporating more measures of ‘thick’ (people) data but elevating their credibility. People are the leading indicators of organizational health.
#3: Measure like you've never measured before (because you probably haven't).
If there was ever a moment for measurement to shine, it’s now. Mobilizing measurement in your organization will both support agile responses to the current crisis and build desirable organizational habits for a post-COVID-19 world.
Measure how people are doing. Not just productivity, but how they’re really doing. As humans. Track this at the individual, team and organizational levels to identify how people are responding to the ever-changing environment. Pay attention to the way people engage with (or don’t) the communication platforms and supports offered and explore why. Don’t forget to include your leaders, who are doubly impacted by uncertainty.
Measure solutions & responses. The pressure to triage is distracting; measurement can become something we do ‘when we have time’. But how will you know whether the triage is working, if you aren’t measuring it? What are the downstream effects of the triage or any other solution? What is driving the organization’s response (i.e., what are the immediate crisis and goal?) and how sustainable is it? Measuring the organization’s responses provides real-time information that external data, pandemic models and economic predictions cannot: it tells you how the organization is really doing, and over time, what else can/should be done.
Everyone is doing the best they can. We have never been here before, and we don’t really know what the ‘after’ will look like.There is no version of a post-COVID-19 world where taking care of our people doesn’t pay off.