Every crisis brings opportunity, forcing us to act radically, at least in the short term.  COVID-19 has seen countries around the world shut down their borders and economies to defend against the pandemic.  Governments are delivering huge temporary monetary injections to help people and organisations stay afloat.

In Australia, we’re experiencing our ‘first in 27-years’ recession.  In the first half on 2020 Australia’s economy will shrink by 10% and unemployment in June is forecast to reach 10%[1].  Most parts of the economy have taken a significant, and in some cases fatal, hit.  Economic recovery is 12-18 months away at best.

Studies have predicted that global turbulence (broadly, an inability to forecast with any certainty) will only increase[2].  Usefully illustrated by the river metaphor – the rapids representing turbulence, the smooth water the periods of relative stability in between – the increase will be characterised by more frequent, bigger and longer lasting rapids.  Soon there will only be varying degrees of rapids.

Welcome to a very different environment which begs a different response.

The focus is now on thriving in all situations which will set successful (and, above all adaptable) businesses, governments and communities apart.

So, what do we do next?

Commentary is largely around 3 stages: 1. Survival, 2. Transition and 3. a ‘New way of working’.  In Australia at least, we are largely through Survival and into Transition (although the outbreak in Melbourne has shown us how unpredictable that might be).  In Transition the focus is on ramping up where possible, conserving cash, weathering the storm.  So, let’s talk about Stage 3: is this the ‘new normal’ or a genuine evolutionary Shift that sets us up to conquer the next crises?

The term ‘new normal’ implies moving from one relatively stable state through a period of flux to another recognisable form of stability.  We should be extremely wary of this thinking.  We know we are moving into an increasingly dynamic environment.  So, the ‘new normal’ approach is unlikely to cut it.

The alternative is Shift: a genuine evolution to a way of working that is adaptable enough to enable us to thrive in any environment.  Even without COVID, most organisations and institutions had recognised that the way work gets done today isn’t for the future.  Business and governments need to evolve rapidly, move faster, operate with a more adaptable structure.  Teams need to be led with a focus on speed, flexibility, trust and collaboration.  And this significant maturity – with its focus on personal evolution that drives business revolution – is a big ask for leaders.

There is some good news: most of the capability needed already exists in your organisation, and there’s loads of research about how to do it.  The solution probably doesn’t look like something you’re used to.


Start re-imagining the future.  If we were going to design ‘us’, is this what it would look like?  Ask your people.  We’ll wager they have lots to contribute.  You’ll likely see your biggest blocks removed, your problems answered, and new opportunities uncovered.  Assume they understand the business enough to contribute to its direction, or that with authority, they will uncover and solve its complexities.

Then, buy back capacity by identifying and removing all non-value adding work (it’s more than you think – at least 30% in most organisations).  By unleashing the innate courage people have been indirectly asked to leave at home (for fear of messing with our sense of control, our systems and processes), they can get ruthless with their time and attention, make difficult decisions with imperfect information, and ‘clean up’ the business.

With this spare capacity use Smart Simplicity[3] to optimise capability so that leaders don’t do their people’s work and people at all levels can exercise appropriate autonomy.  Once all activity is aligned, cooperation will be the most rational choice.  Expect more of yourself and others, then see engagement and creativity soar, feeding organisational zest.

Finally, if we’ve learned anything from COVID, it’s this: reintroduce heart and meaning and use it to drive your people’s best thinking and their best work.  As Dom Price, Work Futurist at Atlassian suggests, employ ‘fully functioning adults’, give them the vision, then get out of their way.

Just imagine what you could create.


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[1] Reserve Bank of Australia.  (May, 2020).  Statement of Monetary Policy.

[2] Boston Consulting Group.  (2012).  The Most Adaptive Companies.

[3] Morieux & Tollman.  (2014).  Six Simple Rules: how to manage complexity without getting complicated.

Author: Alison West