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Lessons in Leadership from CV-19 – What changed about change?

Updated: Nov 11, 2020

June 2020

There are a lot of things that have surprised us since March 2020, when CV-19 began to dictate how we run our day to day lives. One positive thing, that has brought almost universal surprise to managers and team members is how much we have changed in such a short space of time. Our capacity for change has been amazing – if we look back to just 3 months ago, we see different ways of working, different ways of communicating, different resources, and a complete shift in priorities, not to mention working environments. In some cases, we can barely see pre-covid similarities in our now compared to then. how we did before.

For many businesses and organisations, ourselves included, some of the changes we made, almost overnight, were things we have aspired to do for months, even years. More efficient use of time and money through less face to face meetings, more sustainable ways of working, better use of technology to share knowledge and information, improved communication from our managers, with many leaders even reporting the holy grail of shared accountability and devolved decision making! The things we have wanted to achieve for months and years, shifting and happening in a matter of weeks.

We have thrown ourselves into the world of virtual interactivity, and found that we love chat, hands up, breakout rooms and annotation tools. How could this ever be as much fun, and hard work, as a face to face session?! Why didn’t we do it years ago? We have developed new relationships and nurtured existing ones in virtual meetings, staying focussed when the screen freezes mid-coaching session, building rapport when the whites of the eyes are rendered fuzzy by lack of bandwidth, seamlessly re-joining a meeting for the third time. Our team have found new ways of merging their work and personal lives - note that I say new and not always successful). We’ve had to ditch striving for the work-life balance and struggle with the work-life blend; which remains my single biggest challenge, as my teenage daughter ponders again how I can be so poor at home-schooling when I “get paid to teach people stuff”.

So, what changed about the change? Why now and not then? Maybe Kotter can help us here, with his infamous work on change management. Kotter gives us eight change accelerators (if you are thinking change accelerators?! at this point - what happened to his eight steps? then I should point out that he revised his popular change management work in 2015, leaving us with a less linear, step by step model, and some more adaptive approach). If you are familiar with the steps, you’ll be pleased to know that the accelerators haven’t drastically changed them, it’s more about a different method than new ingredients.

I’m not going to go through the 8 accelerators – they’re easily found on a Google Search – but it strikes me that CV-19 has highlighted the importance of one in particular:

Create a sense of urgency around a single big opportunity – now maybe we weren’t presented with an ‘opportunity’ with CV-19, even the more optimistic of us might struggle there, but no-one can deny the sense of urgency. The sense of urgency was huge, even if it was a run away from, rather than a run towards, call to action. Those experienced in leading change will know that without urgency nothing, or very little change happens. We can argue whether we need a burning platform or burning ambition as a starting point, but both are about the urgency. Most of us are creatures of comfort and without a very good, often personal, reason to change we will always have tomorrow to take the first, or next, step. In March we were booted out of our workplaces and booted into a new reality with little or no choice.

Change inertia is something we see a lot of in organisations - change projects that only matter to the person leading them and a mandate that continues to go to the bottom of the pile in place of the reactive pressures of daily operations. So, Lesson 1 from Covid 19 – make it urgent, make it personal, make it happen. If you wait for the third revision of the plan to be signed off, all the resources to be secured, everyone to be consulted with, you’ll lose that urgency. We’re not saying ditch good practice, forget to involve others, take unreasonable risks. But instead to remember, that in March 2020 you make some unprecedented changes, with very few of your usual props, and achieved so much by working it out as you went along with a group of other intelligent people who shared your sense of urgency.


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