A NEW NORMAL
Whether the situation is acute like SARS-CoV-2 or creeping like the climate catastrophe: what is perceived as a state of emergency can, today, be understood as a constant companion in different guises. “Uncertainty is the new normal,” explained IMF chief Kristalina Georgiewa in a recent interview with the German weekly magazine Der Spiegel. If she is correct in her assessment, we must fundamentally change our perspective on crises. In organizations, a crisis is usually seen as an emergency situation that requires an emergency plan. As long as crises occur rarely and remain manageable, this approach can work. However, if there is no long term stability, if a whole period of time is marked by unpredictability, it will help less and less to see crises as individual cases and to be able to cope with them separately in a survival mode that has to be activated again and again. Rather, we have to begin to understand crises as a productive force in order to be able to adjust our activities while they are going on and, in the best case, to emerge stronger from them.
Against the current background, the reference to a Black Swan, which the philosopher and financial mathematician Nassim Nicholas Taleb uses as an image for events that occur unexpectedly and suddenly and at the same time are extremely effective, is once again popular. Taleb himself stated that SARS-CoV-2 is not a Black Swan in his understanding. Looking at history, which has always been characterized by the coexistence of humans and a multitude of deadly viruses, and a globally networked world as a gigantic accelerator, a global pandemic seems to be a question of when and not of whether. In this context, futurology also speaks of Known Unknowns – things we know about but cannot know their details before they appear. At SARS-CoV-2 we cannot speak of a truly unforeseeable event, an Unknown Unknown: “The pandemic, in fact, is the whitest of white swans. So it’s arresting that in many ways it’s taken us by surprise. The crisis we inhabit now is many things; but is it in part a failure to think properly about our shared future?”. The question posed by the future thinker and journalist David Mattin becomes all the more compelling when we consider what could soon be the future of humanity. Rapid climate change makes nature more and more unpredictable which directly impacts us. Natural disasters and wars could be the result, which would require much more than a few days without the much-quoted toilet paper. Additionally, these scenarios do not take into account any cosmic catastrophes, which may befall our planet, and which have cost many species their existence. The inevitable question is how we can prepare for completely unpredictable events when the Known Unknowns are already causing us significant problems and violently rocking our societies.
Our fragility is concealed by the fact that we simulate predictability by trying to address the problem with deadlines (such as the duration of curfews) and forecasts (such as the production of a vaccine). There is nothing wrong with this per se – at the same time, if overemphasized, it tempts us to lull ourselves into a false sense of security (and in the worst case it can even be interpreted as an intentional encroachment on personal freedom and dignity) and then we tend to persist and wait until the exceptional situation is overcome and things can continue “normally” again. Such an attitude ultimately prevents us from seeing crises as opportunities.
Healthy restraint must be accompanied by resilience and elasticity, which can absorb, transform and use the forces acting on it to survive in a constantly changing environment. Organisations can do this by using their energy in times of crisis to achieve reformulated results, activate resources, create improvements and seek new and creative solutions.
Such a form of elasticity and resilience seems like a prerequisite, though, some companies are already demonstrating that they are able to do this: numerous clothing manufacturers, small and large, such as Trigema, Eterna, Prada, or H&M, started to produce face masks and protective suits right at the beginning of the crisis, and some large automobile manufacturers are copying them. Jägermeister, Klosterfrau, and Pernod Ricard deliver alcohol for the production of disinfectants. The bakers and butchers next door offer various hygiene articles for sale. Further afield, a few small businesses venture out when they develop apps that remind us to wash our hands or connect users to their local hairdressers via an app for instructions on how to cut hair and beard at home (at least halfway decently).
The list could go on for some time because what began as a heroic act by a few companies and firms is already a new benchmark after only a few weeks. At the same time, as in every crisis, there are calls for bailouts, and heavy aid packages, because the sometimes exorbitant pursuit of profit by organisations through radical downsizing and record dividend payouts is not compatible with sustainable management, which would allow for robustness even in times of crisis thanks to financial cushions and foresight. As a result, large organisations appear fragile even during a comparatively harmless crisis and in some cases their very existence is actually threatened.
For future crises, it will be crucial to develop a resilience that goes beyond the impulse to survive, so that organizations can not only react but also actively act and shape. In preparation for this, a more sustainable economy in all respects is essential. In order to be able to act productively even in a crisis, attempts to predict a future and avert impending vulnerability (which is usually attempted with the help of rules, instructions or standards) will be of little use. Instead, it is crucial to enable employees to develop their individual resilience.
If an organisation wants to be elastic, people must be allowed and able to move, this requires a certain stability, which common values can provide. The current crisis can enrich the breeding ground for this flexibility: whether it is the fashion designer who designs protective suits and masks, or the factory worker who has to ensure and optimize a clean production process with previously unknown machines. However, a temporary switch to the production of urgently needed goods can only be a beginning and becomes questionable when it degenerates into a PR stunt.
In all social areas, we can and should currently freely address the question of common values and the shaping of the economy and society. This includes not only the fragile and environmentally damaging production of goods and food scattered around the world, but also questions about virtual work and cooperation, or the position of the local community and the environment that can be directly experienced. The serious confrontation with these questions will make us personally as well as our organizations more elastic and resilient and ultimately enable us to think and shape beyond survival even in crises.
Note: Many of the ideas presented here are developed and explained in more detail in our book “Creative Company” (now also available in English): Companies today have to reconcile numerous and often contradictory requirements, because without their consideration, profitability and longevity will become increasingly difficult to achieve. In a situation where we lack certainty, it is no longer sufficient to act in a purely linear and rational fashion, to just do more of the same. In order to succeed, we need an enhanced skill set. We need to develop other competences: perception, reflection, playful creation, and performance. These skills, as well as the ability to work with uncertainty and ambiguity, are fundamental human characteristics that cannot be digitized or automated in the foreseeable future.