Over the last several months, words like “unprecedented” and “extraordinary” have appeared a lot. For good reason. COVID-19 truly is a historical event those adjectives aim to describe. Yet, while the COVID-19 pandemic is singular and unique, in many ways, it is just further evidence of the accelerating disruption we’ve been forecasting for years.
Before “unprecedented," disruption was the word on everyone’s mind. While few predicted a pandemic akin to the one we’re currently experiencing, we’ve long known that factors such as digitalization, globalization, population mobility, and climate change have created a breeding ground for “black swan” events. Once-in-a-lifetime events seem to be happening every generation, generational events are happening several times a decade, and decade-rare occurrences seem to take place each year. If the era of disruption hadn’t officially arrived, it has now.
In this sense, COVID-19 has served as less of a shock than a reminder: it drives home the importance of transformation as an essential modern organizational capability. This is not a new thought. Even before the spread of the coronavirus, 92% of CEOs told McKinsey that their organizations would need to transform to a more digitally-focused business model. COVID-19 has simply thrown this trend into overdrive. In just weeks, we have seen companies launch e-commerce operations, stand up virtual workforces, and create new digital avenues to connect with both employees and consumers. It has been a testament to how fast and how far we can go when we ditch false assumptions, shed the constraints of convention, and mobilize resources against a few key priorities.
While the pandemic will continue to occupy a great deal of our attention for the foreseeable future, eventually, it will recede. Disruption won’t. The goal is not simply to survive COVID-19, but to build the muscle required to continually transform over a broad span of time. When you look at companies that are perpetually reinventing themselves, what traits do they share? At their core, I continue to believe that the most successful companies do three things especially well. We call these the Three Things that Change Everything™.
First, they tell a compelling story. Today, as we deal with the disarray of the coronavirus fallout, a lot of communication is reactive. When there is so much shifting information, we are only able to focus on who, what, when, where and why. This mode of communication is effective at maintaining business continuity. It can get you through a rough patch. But it won’t inspire transformation.
Highly transformational companies tell a story that speaks to their purpose and sparks the imagination. A compelling story has been a key ingredient in powering Amazon from an online book seller to “everything store” and logistics giant; IBM from a punch card manufacturer to AI and quantum computing leader; and Unilever from a soap maker to a global leader in sustainable business. Many companies have messages they lean on to ensure consistency; too few consistently tell a story that transcends their roster of products and speaks to their capacity to become something new.
Second, transformational companies have committed leaders. Business history is full of transformations that failed to launch. It’s a prime reason why companies are experiencing shorter lifespans. In many cases, companies failed to transform not because they lacked transformational ideas, but because they struggled to mobilize talent and resources against innovative concepts. Often, this is due to a lack of committed leaders.
While a compelling story is imperative, if it lives only in executives’ minds, it is doomed to die there too. Stories come to life when the leaders throughout the organization set day-to-day priorities take ownership.
So, how do you cultivate a spirit of ownership among leaders? You invite them in. Too often, frontline leaders feel disconnected from their company’s story because they are passive recipients in its creation… just another audience. To gain commitment, leaders must be part of the story’s creation. They must be given an opportunity to challenge and shape it before they fully embrace it. While this can slow down the process of strategy development, leaders who are fully bought-in not only become zealous advocates for change, but cooperative partners in trading resources and sacrificing pet projects in the name of shared success.
Finally, transformational companies have an intentional roadmap. Transformation is frequently thwarted by clutter. Rather than maximizing the amount of effort and energy we can summon against a critical few initiatives, we heap more and more projects on our people. Sometimes, these projects even work at conflicting aims. Transformative companies excel at plotting and sequencing change initiatives in a way that ultimately yields an intentional roadmap.
For instance, in a post-COVID world, if executives know they need to transform digitally, a roadmap might include: identifying and procuring technological investments; initiating a coordinated talent acquisition campaign to bring in digital experts; launching a broad digital literacy and re-skilling training initiative; and undergoing a culture change program to promote virtual collaboration. This might mean shuttering other culture initiatives that no longer align to strategic goals, or learning & development programs for skills that are ebbing in relevance.
While this seems easy and straight forward, it takes courage. We are better at starting things than ending them, and it’s more popular to announce something than to retire it. But the companies who move swiftly to keep focus on a coherent employee experience ultimately see far greater results.
The last three months have felt like a prolonged exercise in crisis management. While crisis management is important, it’s exhausting. We have a long road ahead of us, and COVID-19 is the newest in a wave of frequent disruption. As people and companies, if we simply try to manage our way through things, we are going to run out of gas. We must lead ahead of the curve rather than chase its tail. If we capture people’s imaginations through compelling stories, gain true commitment from leaders, and make hard choices to set an intentional roadmap, I am confident we all can.