Our longing for ‘getting back to normal’ can blind us to the new and the better. That longing is understandable. We want to be able to go to the beach. We want to be able to go to a café and the pub. We want the uncertainty to stop. At the same time, in my coaching work I am hearing about leaders and teams achieving amazing outcomes in difficult circumstances. Something different is happening and we don’t want to lose it.
Opening the space of nothingness
When our ‘normal’ is blown away we feel disorientated, stressed and anxious. We can feel like we are drifting in a kind of space of nothingness. What we ‘normally’ do no longer works. But in this breakdown of the normal is the opening up of possibilities.
I was talking (zooming of course) with a coaching client recently who is a senior manager in a large public sector organisation. When I asked her how things were going, she was a bit awkward at first. Through these times it’s common for people to talk about how horrible everything is and how difficult jobs are at the moment. Eventually she confessed, “I’m loving working like this. I know many people are doing it tough and there are bad things going on around the world but, to be honest, the breakdown of how we usually do things has been a good thing.’
Unleashing innovation and performance
With ‘normal’ fast fading from memory, she talked about the amazing things that had been achieved by her team and the organisation in the last few weeks. The organisation’s workload had increased hugely but they had delivered on all the standard work and the new requests as well.
‘Not only have we delivered, we have done many things much, much faster than ‘normal’. Results that ‘normally’ took three weeks were pulled off in three days.’
The coaching session was the first chance she had had to stop and reflect on her experience of the past month or so. The more she explored what had been achieved and how it had been able to be done the more excited she became.
‘We really have to capture all that we have done and learned. Why would we want to just go back to normal after all this is over?’
I have had similar conversations with several leaders over the past few weeks. Amidst the hard work and uncertainty, there are also many stories of organisational barriers smashed, departments that had a history of conflict busting their guts to deliver for each other, previously unmotivated employees putting in extra effort and managers trusting team members to manage their lives and work. I have heard a stream of them.
Why would you go back to normal?
My coaching client has committed to capturing as much of the learning from these months as she can with the goal of sustaining and growing the innovation that has been born during this time. Our experience of extraordinary, innovative performance by individuals, teams and organisations in times of crisis is not new. Think of the Australian bushfires and floods. But often we assume we can only do this during times of crisis. But what if we could extract the essence of what we have been doing differently and keep it going even when there isn’t a crisis?
How are we making this happen?
What have we done so differently that has generated this energy, flow and outstanding performance improvements? No doubt, it will take a lot more research and conversation to really work out what leaders and teams did differently during COVID19. From my conversations with leaders from different organisations and sectors over the past weeks, here’s some observations.
We are focusing on big, humanity level goals
Leaders are talking a lot about stopping the pandemic, keeping their staff and their households safe, getting products out to people to improve their lives or even bringing beautiful music to sooth people during stressful times. Most of these people aren’t doing a different job to the one they have always had. But they are seeing their individual work and the purpose of their organisation in a much wider and deeper picture. Big, humanity level goals ignite the human spirit.
We are thinking ‘us’ and not ‘them’.
Through this crisis, our individual role and team identities are much less important than they were before. I have heard many stories of individuals and whole teams putting aside their ‘day jobs’ to do work they had never done before. Teams have got stuck in and done what had to be done. It was hard to find ‘them’. We were all ‘us’.
We are assuming the best in ‘us’ all.
The goal is so big, the work so complex and the timing so urgent that there has been little choice but to assume the best in other people. There seems to have just been a taken for granted attitude that people in other teams and even other organisations are all doing the best they can.
We are listening to different ideas.
When we can’t do what we have always done we start to listen with an open mind and open mood. Before, we knew how things worked. We knew the right answer. We often pretended to listen to new and unusual ideas. Now we have to.
We are having direct and unpretentious conversations.
There just hasn’t been the energy and time to sustain some of the veneers we use to adopt in our working relationships. In a previous article, we talked about how video calls from home gave us glimpses of each other’s non-work lives and how this, combined with the humanity level goal, has meant our conversations are more direct and unpretentious.
We are imagining a whole, interconnected community.
COVID19 has reminded us that we are a highly interconnected community. As I listen to leaders talking about our situation, I am hearing a lot more whole system language and thinking. Turns out we are very interdependent after all.
The pandemic is horrific, taking lives and destroying jobs. But this breakdown experience has also led to rapid innovation, high performance and greater humanity in our work and society. We have put into practice some important principles in the most difficult times. The only reason to stop is because we are so keen to go back to normal. Go back to normal? Let’s not.