A playbook to get you started

What exactly is the new normal and how will it affect your organization? No one can tell for sure. I don’t pretend to have the answer, either. Some things will change; others will stay almost the same.

However, what I know for sure is that the new normal will require a new mindset. As things settle, going back to normal is not an option. Don’t miss this opportunity.

This crisis has accelerated several changes that were already happening. We cannot stick to the same type of leadership, culture, or decision-making that was created in a different context.

This playbook is not the answer to what you need to do, but an attempt to kickstart the conversation. I will address seven areas that need revisiting with an accompanying play to get you started.

Practice Holding Leadership, Not Visionary

Visionary leaders don’t do so good in times of crisis. People don’t need to dream about a better future, but to understand reality, adapt, and act fast.

In this highly-recommended article by Gianpiero Petriglieri, the author explains how our enchantment with vision holds our imagination captive and can be painfully limiting in times of crisis.

In Petriglieri’s words, “Visions hold our imagination captive, but they rarely have a positive effect on our bodies.” Sometimes the sacrifice is worth it, but most of the times it’s not. As the author points out, we often end up sacrificing our lives for our countries or working ourselves to exhaustion for our companies.

Holding – the ability to contain and interpret what’s happening – is an essential leadership trait during times of uncertainty. In psychology, holding describes when an authority figure alleviates distress and makes sense out of chaos, helping others move into action.

Petriglieri references Donald Winnicott – one of my favorite psychologists – who observed that effective parents provide a holding environment, making children comfortable and curious.

A holding leadership helps people think clearly and respond instead of reacting. During the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, a study uncovered two different outcomes. BP’s employees, who were exposed to upbeat messages, lost faith in the company and its leaders. Their counterparts, who had managers who drafted them to clean up the mess, had a more positive reaction; they felt reassured because their bosses were more containing and informative.  

Try this play: What? So What? Now What?

Design A Culture that Propels You into the Future

Very few workplace cultures are future-proofed. And, even if they are, the acceleration of everything driven by the coronavirus is putting more company cultures to the test.

2020 will be the decade of culture-first organizations, according to Glassdoor. Many indicators show how workplace culture creates a dramatic impact on business results. However, amid the current crisis, I hear a lot of people saying, “Culture is not a priority.”

I’m lucky to have clients that realize that this is the time to nurture their culture. And I’m not alone; research by Bersin and CultureX shows that many companies are treating their employees better than ever. A similar study by Willis Towers Watson shows how many businesses are going the extra mile to take care of their employees.

We’ve been facilitating a simple yet very effective exercise with many of our clients. We review their current culture – mapped with the Culture Design Canvas – and have their teams work on answering two powerful questions:

  1. What are the things about our culture that will help us succeed in the new normal?
  2. What are the aspects of our culture that are getting stuck in the old normal?

Doing this exercise can help uncover what the issues are and what elements of your workplace culture are getting in the way. A new normal requires new rules; to propel your organization into the future, you must let go of practices that were designed to thrive in the past.

Try this play: How to Use The Culture Design Canvas

Adapt Proactively, Don’t Just React

There are two ways to adapt to uncertain, unexpected events. We can be in control of our decisions or simply let external circumstances dictate how we act.

Transforming a culture requires new thinking, not just new tools. In his book “Adaptability,” Max McKeown talks about the different levels of adaptability. I adapted his model from 4 to 3, as you can see in the chart below.

Reacting to change can be as harmful as adapting just to survive. You’ll still pay a high price for playing at a level 2. What most organizations need to ask in this particular moment is, what’s our approach to adaptation?

Are you trying to play catch-up with the times? Or are you using this moment to really transform how we operate as a company?

There are two ways to adapt. One is by reacting to events and letting external factors dictate your decisions. The other is by embracing adaptability as an inner-force; not just changing behaviors, but also challenging the organizational mindset. The beliefs, values, and operating principles.

How will you adapt to the new normal? The success of your organizations depends on it.

Try this play: Shift Your Team’s Mindset: From Blockers to Amplifiers

Create A Shared Vision of The Future

How you and your team see the future has an enormous impact on how you adapt to the new normal. Most organizations talk about the future by focusing on external events, but they spend little or no time on understanding their people’s vision of the future.

Where does your team stand?

Are people optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

Do they feel in control, or do think that they can’t make a difference?

It’s impossible to thrive in the future if your team feels powerless or have a passive attitude expecting leaders to take care of things. This simple exercise can trigger exciting conversations – not only about where people stand regarding the future, but what changes are needed to regain control and become more powerful.

Try this play: The Polak Game: Where Do You Stand?

Increase Participation In the Decision-Making Process

The paradox during times of crisis is that, when they need input the most, many leaders tend to shut off. Assessing a crisis and identifying a course of action requires tapping into the collective wisdom of an organization. However, the pressure to act decisively and fast drives senior executives to make decisions on their own.

A crisis is the single most difficult challenge a leader could face, especially when it comes in the form of an ugly virus that takes the entire world by storm. Acting promptly is important, but so is alignment.

When Johnson & Johnson spent $100 million in 1982 to withdraw all Tylenol capsules from the market, it wasn’t a unilateral decision. It was the right thing to do after 12 people died in Chicago. Most importantly, it aligned with J&J’s values that put people’s safety as the company’s first responsibility. The decision to recall Tylenol was made and implemented with input from several executives, not just the CEO.

Most companies are making tough decisions that affect both their businesses and employees. Involve your employees; listen to their point of view and ask for ideas ––especially when it comes to tough choices that will affect people’s lives.

Embrace a “Yes, and” approach; build on people’s contributions.

I had to go through a massive restructuring over a decade ago. The initial assumption was that people would have to be let go. Instead of making the decision and simply informing employees, I decided to share the financial challenge and explore options together. We ended up applying salary and time reductions for everyone, but no layoffs. Time proved it was the right decision; we were able to recover pretty quickly, and everyone ended up earning more than before.

Try this play: Improv Principle: “Yes, And…”

Provide People with Choices

If there’s one thing that the crisis has accelerated is the need for flexibility. The one-size-fits-all approach is harming both people and organizations.

When Twitter’s CEO announced, that employees that can keep working from home “forever” if they wish, most people confused the message. They started raving, “This is the future of work” or “Twitter has embraced remote work 100%.” However, as someone noted on LinkedIn, Jack Dorsey didn’t force people to work from home forever; he was giving people options.

As the statement reads, “(if employees) want to continue doing so forever, then we will make that happen. If not, our offices will be their warm and welcoming selves, with some additional precautions, when we feel it’s safe to return.”

When thinking about the future, we tend to approach it in binary terms. Either works remotely or no one does.

The new normal won’t be one single thing for every organization or person. To thrive, we must let go of binary thinking and be flexible. Invite people to a conversation and hear what they have to say. Provide people with options. Let them decide what works best for them. Trust your team.

Try this play: The Pizza Slice Feedback Exercise

Move from Stiff Jobs to Flexible Roles

Titles and rigid job descriptions get in the way of innovation. Most importantly, they fail to bring out the best in people, as I wrote here.

Hayley Darden believes that it’s time to retire our idea of jobs. The stiff-jobs model, as she calls it, is bringing out the worst in everyone and limiting organizations’ ability to adapt to the new normal. Organizations need more dynamic ways of deploying talent – which already exists.

Defining roles and accountabilities based on requirements of ongoing and new projects can help reframe how people can contribute. Rather than asking people to limit themselves to a job description, invite them to pitch their talents for every opportunity that arises.

Creating an internal talent marketplace is beneficial for both the company and its employees. First, organizations can tap into existing skills, expertise, and talent rather than hiring new people. Second, people feel more motivated by using their full potential and applying different talents depending on the nature of the project.

As Darden explains, companies like Unilever, Cisco, and Zappos continually use a talent marketplace to match opportunity and talent. They allocate existing employees within their organizations to achieve more while developing people, too.

Unilever gained 60,000+ additional hours of work from their teams in a 2-month initial roll-out last summer. At the same time, employees became more engaged (95% work satisfaction score) because they are applying more skills and learning at the same time.

Try this play: From Titles to Roles Exercise

Don’t Forget to Be Human

We are all going through rough times. The quarantine state of mind will have a long-lasting effect. Be patient.

The future has always been uncertain, but now it feels even more terrifying for most. Your team will make mistakes. You will make mistakes, too. It’s a necessary price to pay to learn and improve our game during a never-ending adaptation. Become more mistake tolerant.

Most organizations and leaders will have to make tough choices. Most of those will affect people’s lives. If you have to choose, prioritize people’s health and safety over financial results. Be compassionate and empathetic.

Airbnb has had to let go almost 25% of its workforce – and the leadership didn’t take that decision lightly, as you can read in Brian Chesky’s open letter to all employees. Not only did Airbnb’s CEO chose to be open and candid, but he was also humble and caring. Chesky acknowledged that the future of travel is a big question mark.

No one knows how or when things will return to normal. However, business uncertainty should provide more uncertainty for people. Airbnb is offering a package that provides severance, reducing caps so everyone can claim their equity shares, prolonging health benefits, and has created an Alumni Talent Directory to help people find a job. The company didn’t delegate the latter to another firm but took that responsibility into its own hands.

Airbnb didn’t part ways with some colleagues because they want to but because they have to. In doing so, they took full responsibility and treated people as such. Be human.

Try this play: What do you stand for? Discover your values.

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