28 Mar Three Firsts for a Post-Virus World.
For business this is the eye of the needle, the day when what we do will shape not just what happens tomorrow, but every tomorrow. Here’s why.
FIRST DAY: Welcome to the rest of your life!
As this crisis unfolds, leaders of companies large and small are overwhelmed, concerned about payrolls, worker health, supply chains and the very existence of their companies. CEOs have to manage the balance of resources each day, at the eye of the storm. But maybe there’s a silver lining to those dark clouds. Peer above them into what’s beyond the pandemic, at the human landscape on the other side, and this crisis might look like a catalyst for a re-set of everyone’s relationship with the realities of the 21st century environment.
There is, in this crisis, despite the fear and anger showcased in the media, a precious unity and consensus that leaders and communicators can mobilize. Companies are agents of social change, and in this unprecedented pause in market activity, there’s food for thought. Is this a chance to jettison the oppressive habits of the past that constrain innovation and real value? To use the lessons of 9/11 and 2007 to accelerate the return to business — but this time in greater service of society?
In this shake-out everyone gets a shot at writing the future. The deep desire for taking action that we all feel right now is not just fear, it’s also a powerful engine for innovation, creativity, and compassion. Business-as-usual is no longer a zero-sum proposition of winners and losers. This moment is about saving human life and defining ourselves by our ability to bring prosperity to the greatest number of people in our communities. Firms and corporations can restore trust, cooperation and dignity. Not a bad action plan.
FIRST PRINCIPLE: “We got this.”
Biologists will tell you that the adaptive dynamics of life are more like a subtle and joyful intelligence of believing we can live with change not wall it out, reverse it, or suppress it. The new world will be different from last week, and there’s no going back. With their skill of the fast pivot, businesses may be better prepared than public institutions to see and act on this. Leaders with the skills to communicate a vision, mobilize their people and resources and execute a plan become grand players in the human epic. The benefits of that vision go far beyond this virus and the lives it threatens.
Think of all the hard challenges faced by our world and its institutions right now – environmental, economic, even political. Every one of them will be helped by our success against this infection. Our greatest traditional flaw in facing challenges is the inability to act. This is what we often struggle with in business strategy. Should we act now? Can we act? Are we ready? Should we be the first to act? Is there a risk in being first? Should we wait and see?
A disabled child named Greta Thunberg made this point about the tragedy of inaction on global warming at the last Davos conference of the pre-pandemic era. If we can think of COVID-19 less as a viral Al Qaeda and more as a sub-cellular Greta Thunberg, what a powerful metaphor for the future we will be riding. Suddenly we don’t need permission from a child or anyone to act. It’s all urgent now.
FIRST TASK: Understanding that “this is no drill = this is a drill.”
“This is no drill” signifies that we are in a full blown crisis. But “This IS a drill” may actually be the deeper truth. Because the full downstream impact of COVID-19 seems clearly to be survivable, this may be better understood as a chance to prepare for events to come. In what we do now, businesses can reactivate human resilience in facing crises and have a much larger toolbox for more difficult challenges in this century.
Here’s a challenge to leave with you. Can you guess the movie this line is from? “Okay people listen up. The people upstairs have handed us this one and we’ve got to come through. We’ve got to find a way to make THIS fit into the hole for THIS using nothing but THAT.”
It’s from one of the most dramatic scenes in Apollo 13 – the same movie Apple has pushed to its Apple TV homepage this week. A paunchy, balding, nameless engineer dumps a bunch of objects on a table and says to his rumpled colleagues that to save the Apollo astronauts they have to invent a machine to clean the air in their crippled space craft hundreds of thousands of miles away where they are running out of time. That line could precisely capture our planetary challenge at this moment.
In the movie, actor Tom Hanks delivers the unforgettable “Houston, we have a problem.” In real life, Hanks has already told everyone that he has developed COVID-19. In real time, this sad fact is sending another message: “Humanity, we have a problem… and there’s a line-up of problems behind it.” Some big companies are already on it. Amazon is reverse-engineering networks of fulfillment centers and cloud servers to better allocate space and protect communications and the supply chain. Ford’s long history of American ingenuity in times of crisis is fully up and running, offering their plants and people to produce critical medical equipment.
It is not an overstatement to say that businesses may best demonstrate this trait of human adaptability because every successful business of the last fifty years has faced daunting, unimaginable change. Think IBM, US Steel, Microsoft, Netflix, Dell, Ford, Apple — look at Boeing. COVID-19 compresses the timetable. It was adaptability that built those organizations, and it will be adaptability that gets us all through this.
So, a thought for all the embattled, overrun, cornered management teams trying to cope at this critical moment. Think about the changes your companies have made in the past 20, 50, 100 years. Then imagine adapting that way in five. We believe this is a chance to help create a future where everybody profits. Let’s roll up our sleeves. But first, thoroughly wash those hands and sleeves.