The global pandemic has brought many nations and many companies to a grinding halt. There are six waves to the crisis. The first wave was the health impact on individuals. Our suffering wasn’t just physical it was psychological. Fear and anxiety gripped millions of us and continues to do so even as the constraints of the lockdown are eased. The scale of the health crisis led to wave two – the overwhelming of global health care systems. Most nations were ill-prepared and ill-equipped to deal with a pandemic on this scale. To reduce the death toll, we closed society. This move triggered the third wave – an economic meltdown. Many have argued that the economic crisis will cause the largest and most sustained degree of suffering. Many businesses have already closed, and it’s predicted that US unemployment will rise from its current high point of 15% to possibly >30%, far worse than the great depression.
These three waves have created an unprecedented level of damage and necessitated many of us to look very closely at how we live our lives and whether we need to radically change what we are doing, how we are relating to each other and how we feel about pretty much everything.
For example, it is said that COVID-19 has done more for digital transformation than 1,000 CEOs could do. Transformation beyond the digital space has just got real rather than the pretense of change that was going on under the banner of transformation pre-COVID. Many companies now talk of pivoting their business and changing to completely different products or services. There are step changes in organisational structures, geographic footprints and the way people and talent pools are being managed. Many companies are thinking about becoming “DDOs” or deliberately developmental organisations. This means putting people development central as a strategic capability. Some organisations have even realised that this will effectively require a wholescale change in the way their leaders are developed, and they need a CDO, or Chief Development Officer rather than an HRD, CHRO or CPO. In short, the size of the change required to the corporate strategy, structure and culture must be in line with this ‘once in a lifetime’ crisis that we are facing.
Which leads us to wave four – cultural change. The reason culture change is so important is that without it no strategy ever sustains. But as leaders know most cultural transformation programmes fail. And they fail for two basic reasons. Firstly, many organisations are confused about culture itself and fail to differentiate the key components they need to understand to drive change. Culture is confused with climate; values are confused with beliefs and both are confused with behaviours. Attitudes, character and identity mood and reputation are all part of the cultural confusion. Secondly, most organisation don’t know how to measure and therefore track change within their own culture. It is not surprising that organisation fail to drive change when then can measure the very thing they are trying to change.
The cultural change that this pandemic is suggesting is centred on the need to stop putting profit before people and the planet. If we don’t put people and the planet first, we may kill off both entirely. We need a more humane collaborative cultural transformation. Why, not just because COVID-19 has made us realise that we are ultimately all connected as a global community but because collaborative business models are more successful than competitive ones in the longer term.
Many people have personally experienced the benefits of pulling together in a crisis and have realised how much transformation can be driven when there is no other choice. Change can happen and it can happen at speed, be successful and in many cases be invigorating – but mainly when it is done together with other.
The cultural change we will need to drive in our organisations will be reflected in the changes we will need to make to our wider systems, and this is wave five – system change. We need to take a much more nuanced view of how healthcare affects the global economy and is affected by the poverty levels in society. The inequity in the COVID death in different ethnic groups or economic groups has awoken millions of people to the injustice of health care provision.
The momentum for more widespread change in the social systems of society such as the police, politics, healthcare, education, business is rising with each passing day. And this leads us into wave six the unintended consequences of the pandemic. We have seen how quickly nitrous oxygen emissions can drop when we change the way we live. Cities normally thick with smog have seen the night sky for the first time in years. Death rates from non-COVID respiratory problems have dropped. People have reconnected with their families when forced to work from home is new and unexpected ways. The cultural norms around working from home have certainly changed. And maybe even our own attitudes to change itself have changed.
We are truly at an inflection point for humanity. We must realise that, in a world that is accelerating, we need to be way more comfortable with discomfort. We need to be excited not fearful of change. We need to become masterful at driving successful change in ourselves in our relationships with each other and in our organisations. We must change what we do, how we do it and with whom we do it. If we truly embrace the changes, we must make then we can architect a better world. But above all else we need to change our destiny together.
Dr Alan Watkins is the CEO and co-founder of Complete a leadership consultancy that works globally with CEOs, Executive Boards in multiple markets helping them to step change their business. His latest book The HR (R)Evolution: Change the Workplace, Change the World was published by Routledge.
Dr Watkins is a global ambassador and supporter of UNLEASH, the biggest global HR and tech community https://unleashgroup.io/.