It’s been a very different couple of months, hasn’t it?
I confess, I haven’t been writing much lately. While the bravest among us have been rushing to the front lines, I’ve been toiling away in the back office, so to speak. But I’ve been logging all my observations and discoveries in my journal. I’m only just starting to come up for air and make sense of what I’ve seen. So much is shifting — in geopolitics, in policymaking, in corporate thinking, in social behaviors. It’s exciting and scary.
I’ve seen a lot of ugliness. Profiteering — on all sides. A total collapse of trust — on all sides. I’ve seen some of the world’s best bureaucracies paralyzed by their own processes. I have seen ventilators used as political bargaining chips and cargo planes full of PPE get hijacked while stopping to refuel.
And I’ve seen some beautiful things. I’ve seen the World Bank cut a year-long process for approving a new Latin American loan program down to just a few weeks. I’ve seen African and American states share their private plans for how to open their economies back up. I’ve seen the leadership thinking inside big corporations widen. “Your business is only as resilient as your customers” is no longer a ‘nice sentiment’. It’s now plainly true.
The success that many countries have had “flattening their curve” is now living proof to all of us that a higher level of awareness and action is a real possibility. “What other curves might we flatten together?” This is another ‘nice sentiment’ that is no longer merely that.
How should we look at this moment we’re in? With pessimism? There’s already enough of that in the world. With optimism? That’s naïve, given that we are standing in the midst of the latest crisis that we could have avoided, but didn’t.
With courage. That’s my answer. We have all been forced to stop what we’re doing. If we find the courage to look around, we can see the world more plainly now than maybe we’ll ever be able to see it again. And if we find the courage to act upon what we see, then this “pause” can become a moment of profound choosing. Of the future we want to start moving towards.
So let’s all take a good look around and start working on that choice.
Today I’ve got two questions I want to share with you for reflection. The first is a question for society:
Will the “new normal” be new enough?
And the second is a question for organizations (with whom I’ve been struggling a lot lately!)
How can we drop our culture when we need to?
We’re all in this together. Wouldn’t it be great if we can hold onto that discovery?
Stay safe, everyone,
Society: Will the “new normal” be new enough?
The “new normal” is the phrase on everyone’s lips right now—politicians, pundits, business leaders. If I had to try to define it, based on how people use it, I’d define “new normal” as: going back to the “old normal”, except that we’re going to have to adopt a few new behaviors to keep the virus from spreading again.
This makes sense and seems obvious.
But it also makes no sense. COVID-19 is clear evidence that under the “old normal”, we were missing some big things that have giant impact on our wellbeing.
The “old normal” led us into this present. But this isn’t the present we wanted. Not at all.
So why on earth would we use this “old normal” as the basis for our “new normal”?
It’s very hard to shake the suspicion that, under the “new normal”, we are going to find ourselves in a future moment just like this one: following routines of thought and action that led us right to where we didn’t want to be; reeling from another crisis that we could have avoided but didn’t.
Yes, there are a billion important reasons to get things back to “the way they were” before coronavirus.
But this is also the perfect moment to ask big, tough questions about the way things were — now, while the evidence is all around us that under the “old normal”, we were comfortable with catastrophe-waiting-to-happen.
I don’t want to spend my life enduring a string of avoidable crises that keep us from ever living in better futures that might have been. I want to spend my life living in those better futures.
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Three naïve questions we should all be asking one another
Now is the perfect moment to ask some giant, naïve questions. Now, while it’s so obvious that the conventional answers were missing something big.
Here are a few snippets from my own thinking that I hope help spark some of your reflections:
1. Instead of adapting to the “new normal”, can we imagine a new world?
This question was the theme of my first book. It’s a strange experience, flipping through those pages now. Many of the lines I wrote in Age of Discovery have new meaning for me today. Lines like:
“The present age is a contest between flourishing genius and flourishing risk.”
“We risk fumbling badly — as individuals, as society and as a species. If we want to reach the greatness that is possible for humanity, we need to keep believing it is possible. And we must help one another to cope with the shocks that none of us will see coming.”
And the conclusion to the book:
“We must see the moment we live in for what it is: a clash of creative and destructive forces that will reshape humanity and the whole world. When we recognize this contest, we also recognize something else: our responsibility to join it. It is a contest that has to be fought, and has to be won.”
(While we’re all sheltering at home, I’m gifting “Chapter 7: The Pox Is Spreading”, which digs into why pandemics and other “systemic shocks” are becoming more frequent and painful. Or you can buy the full book on Amazon.)
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2. How can we think differently about everything?
Back in November in New York, I helped a roomful of executives to explore this impossible question. (Here’s a two-minute clip on pandemics and how to make new maps when the old ones lead us to the wrong place. Special thanks to Pictet Asset Management for the permission to republish this to you.)
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3. Is Humanity on the right track?
One year ago, in Melbourne, I was invited to give a public lecture at the State Library of Victoria. To make it fun, I staged it as a debate between myself and me on the question: “Is Humanity on the right track?” Here are a couple snippets from the “No” side of the argument (on pandemics; on the need for a new path forward).
And here’s the full lecture.
Organizations: How can we drop our culture when we need to?
I’ve been struggling a lot with organizational cultures lately. Cultures that no longer fit their context. Culture is a strength — until the context suddenly changes, like right now. Then, culture can be like the autopilot that stubbornly steers the ship toward an iceberg despite the obvious need to change course. I’ve often felt that, these past few months.
The brief background is: Since February, I’ve been helping governments and hospitals around the world to set up new supply chains for PPE and COVID-19 testing kits from China (and more recently, India).
Within a couple days, I was WeChatting and WhatsApping with the execs of big Asian manufacturers. A couple days more, and I was plugged into a team of lawyers and consultants on-the-ground in Beijing and Shanghai, peering into the factories, doing due diligence, photographing inventories and verifying licenses, talking to China’s own hospitals and policy teams to figure out which manufacturers they trusted to keep their doctors and police officers safe. Plugging into China’s ministries to be first-to-know about changes to government policy about what could and couldn’t be exported. All pretty routine for somebody who lived and worked in Beijing for years and did a PhD in Chinese politics.
The hard part was working with the bureaucracies on the other side — bureaucracies whose cultures prize decision quality, not decision speed. Minimize the number of bad decisions — that’s the culture. And it makes complete sense under normal circumstances.
But in February and March, that culture cost a lot of lives. In February and March, we needed bureaucracies that allowed people to drop procedures, act upon common sense, and maximize the number of good decisions.
Many couldn’t drop their culture. They couldn’t flip that switch. They couldn’t ignore the political or professional risk of “getting it wrong.” And “our rules don’t make sense anymore” simply wasn’t a good enough reason to revise them.
And so I found myself witness to some truly bizarre work-arounds. In one economy, where many small private hospitals couldn’t sign-off on a joint purchase contract, one wealthy doctor took it upon himself to make common-sense bulk purchases, pass those products onto the hospitals, then buy more as soon as the hospitals refilled his bank account. (Too slow, but much faster than doing nothing.)
In another (giant) economy, the government’s own laws made it illegal to buy products under the payment terms that the Chinese factories demanded. (In February/March, Chinese manufacturers of PPE, ventilators and tests all demanded 100% cash upfront. No credit. If you weren’t willing to meet those terms, someone else would.) Picture this insanity, if you can: You’re one of the richest economies on earth. You’re trying to buy 1,000 acute-care ventilators, but you can’t legally do so. So we wasted a week chasing big corporations and mega-rich citizens to stump up the cash instead.
Sadly, I now have a bagful of stories like these. Stories of deaths that could’ve been prevented — and, somehow, couldn’t be.
It’s been the most painfully frustrating experience of my life. At a very high price, it’s taught me three questions that all organizations absolutely must ask themselves, coming out of this crisis:
- What is our “permission structure”? What do people in our organization need permission to do, and what can they give themselves permission to do?
- Why is that our permission structure? What values does it promote? (hint: the big one is “control” vs “trust”)
- When does it work, and when does it fail?
Have you ever done “scenario planning”? As part of that exercise, did you ever ask the question, “What permissions will we need to drop, or adopt, under each of these scenarios?” No, me neither…
I think I’ll stop here for today.
Do put your name down if you think you’d like to take part in a call with a diverse group of people from a diverse set of perspectives — all sharing discoveries from the Great Pause with one another.
We’re still questing together. It’s just become a lot more urgent.