New thinking will be required to adapt to the new normal life post COVID-19.
I hate to start this article on a negative note, but we are not going to back to normal after this extended period of lockdown. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed, and will continue to change, the world and the way we work, rest and play. Some readers might be old enough to recognise I have stolen those words from a certain chocolate bar’s advertising strapline which helps you to ‘WORK, REST and PLAY’. Borrowing from the impactful worlds, COVID-19 has completely changed the way the planet works, rests and plays.
So ‘going back’ to the way we were before COVID-19 is not an option. The challenge, and I think the opportunity, is now to start the process of thinking about a ‘new normal’.
“We cannot re-write the chapters of history already past, but we can learn from them, evolve and adapt. The new normal may even be a better normal, certainly a different normal”
New normal: life post COVID-19
A quote from Ian Davis, Managing Partner at McKinsey, in his article ‘The New Normal’, summarises this: “For some organisations, near-term survival is the only agenda item. Others are peering through the fog of uncertainty, thinking about how to position themselves once the crisis has passed and things return to normal. The question is, ‘What will normal look like?’. While no one can say how long the crisis will last, what we find on the other side will not look like the normal of recent years.”
These words were written 11 years ago, during the global financial crisis, but they could easily have been written about the current COVID-19 pandemic. We have faced many challenges as a human race and overcome them, however the other side of each of these challenges has looked very different.
This pandemic challenge we will get through, but we must face the fact that this will dramatically change the way we work, rest and play.
Theory of environmental analysis
To help think about what the new normal could look like, I have used a theory of environmental analysis first coined in 1987 for the US Army War College to describe different types of battle zone conditions. In the last few years, this principle has been picked up by many leadership experts and related the idea of the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world to a corporate setting. If you Google VUCA, you will find much sage advice on what to do when faced with these four different situations.
I have highlighted a short synopsis of the conventional wisdom for each situation and contrasted that with an alternative view for the new normal world we will be creating soon. The definitions have been adapted from the Cambridge English Dictionary, 2020.
V for VOLATILE
Definition: Likely to change suddenly and unexpectedly, especially by getting worse.
- Food and essential supplies have been in a volatile state of availability since lockdown.
- The situation was made more volatile by the fact that people were not sticking to the instructions to stay at home.
Definition: Likely to change emotional state very suddenly, especially by becoming angry.
- She had a volatile temper and could be difficult to work with virtually.
- He has a volatile nature and can be unreliable and unpredictable.
Conventional old school wisdom: Counteract volatility with stability.
Post COVID-19 new thinking: How can we leverage the volatile world to look at new ways of working? Stability is good, but rarely a fertile space for innovation and creativity. The new normal will be different, and how we approach this volatile time will depend on how we adapt. To adapt means to change so let us think proactively about how that change might look.
U for UNCERTAIN
Definition: Not knowing what to know or believe, or not able to decide about something.
- She is uncertain about whether she should take the dog to the park in lockdown.
- He was uncertain whether to wear a face mask or not.
Definition: Not known or fixed, or not completely certain.
- Many furloughed workers face an uncertain future.
- The political landscape is uncertain.
Conventional old school wisdom: Counteract uncertainty with certainty.
Post COVID-19 new thinking: Many people like things to be settled, organised and placed into a comfortable routine. Others thrive on uncertainty and love the opportunities it brings. Wherever you sit on this continuum you will need to embrace rather than fight the uncertainty. Think about using this uncertainty to consider what could be possible in the new normal.
New York Times bestselling author Mandy Hale captures the new thinking best in her quote: “Trust the wait. Embrace the uncertainty. Enjoy the beauty of becoming. When nothing is certain, anything is possible.”
C for COMPLEX
Definition: Involving a lot of different but related parts.
- We live in a complex network of information and data.
- Supplying the right PPE, to the right people is a complex logistics operation.
Definition: Difficult to understand, explain or find an answer to because of many different parts.
- Lockdown is a complex situation to which there is no straightforward answer.
- The data around COVID-19 is complex and can be difficult to interpret.
Conventional old school wisdom: Counteract complexity with simplicity.
Post COVID-19 new thinking: When we can’t simplify, we must get creative and look to new ways of dealing with the complexity we face. Just look at how the pharma world is collaborating in a new spirit of discovery to crack the complex problem of finding a vaccine and therapeutics for the challenges of COVID-19. Leaning into the complexity rather than fighting it can be the fuel to spark ingenious solutions.
A for AMBIGUOUS
Definition: Having or expressing more than one possible meaning, sometimes intentionally.
- The Minister’s response to that question was ambiguous.
- The wording of the guidance could be seen as ambiguous.
Definition: Difficult to understand because of conflicting or opposite facts or characteristics.
- The data is ambiguous and could be used to draw different conclusions.
- The situation is ambiguous and there is no clear solution.
Conventional old school wisdom: Counteract ambiguity with clarity.
Post COVID-19 new thinking: When there is no clarity, maybe we need to just embrace the fact that we need to look at things differently, think differently and act differently.
Best summed up by the author and thinker Deepak Chopra: “The measure of your enlightenment is the degree to which you are comfortable with paradox, contradiction, and ambiguity.”
When faced with ambiguity and paradox, we often try to solve the perceived conflict, and this can lead to frustration and wasted time and energy. Instead learn to live with paradox and ambiguity; life is not a series of binary choices. Life is a spectrum of colours and shades, not black and white. So learn to love all those paradoxical and ambiguous situations, because hidden in there are opportunities to find the new and exciting.
“Wherever you sit on this continuum you will need to embrace rather than fight the uncertainty”
A better normal?
If you are looking forward to coming out of lockdown and returning to the old normal, think again. The current situation is tragic, heart-breaking and filled with fear and anxiety. However, there are thin silver linings there if you look for them.
This is our chance to reinvent and create a better world where we can all work, rest and play in the new normal. We cannot re-write the chapters of history already past, but we can learn from them, evolve and adapt. The new normal may even be a better normal, certainly a different normal.
So during the remainder of the lockdown period ask yourself these questions about your version of new normal:
- How can I reinvent the way I work to best utilise the new normal?
- Where can I reform my lifestyle in order to rest in the new normal?
- What can I do to reimagine how I play in the world that will be my new normal?
If you think you have the personal power to reinvent, reform and reimagine your own new normal, then you are correct, you do.
If you think you don’t have the personal power to reinvent, reform and reimagine your own new normal, then you are correct too, you don’t.
Either way, I look forward to seeing you on the other side, in the new normal world where we will work, rest and play together again.
Mark Pringle is Founding Director of MORExcellent.