We all react differently to change and the events of the last month have certainly been at the higher end of the change scale for the vast majority of us. I spoke in my last blog about the personal leadership challenge we all face in rising to the challenges of the change, with the summary being that there is only one person responsible for how you shape up during and after this crisis…… you! That still stands and as the inevitable impact of Covid-19 extends and the clarity around the future remains dim and misty to say the least, finding ways to stay focussed and positive is key. As a result of the lockdown and social distancing directives we have seen some organisations and businesses that are unable to work at all – with all the ensuing financial challenges – and other organisations that have significantly shifted the way they work to accommodate working remotely or virtually. I have spoken to lots of people from very different organisations, all with interesting tales to tell about the way they, their senior leaders and the organisation in general has responded to the challenges and change.

I was exploring the Kubler-Ross change curve with someone the other day and it just goes to show what a powerful piece of work that was all those years ago. Like it or not, this is what is happening to all of us, the challenge is to try and get through it quickly and the more conscious and appreciative we are of it, the more pragmatic we can be. If you are leading teams then your job is to help flatten the curve as much as you can and try and expedite their individual and collective journey through it. However, as usual the challenge when we are dealing with people is that we are all different, we experience and respond to change in different ways. So I ask the question again – where are you on the journey towards a new normal? Or where are your people on the journey towards a new normal?

One of the biggest challenges we are facing in managing this journey, is the lack of a clear view of what the ‘new normal’ will be? What will it look like, feel like, mean to us, to our work, families and wider society? Nobody knows and one of the observations I would make is, how many of us are still waiting to be told what this will look like. We have experienced unprecedented interventions from the Government; they have taken a ‘parental’ stand point (in relation to Transactional Analysis) decided what is best for us (and they are right to do so) defining what we do and how we will behave. Quite rightly they have taken ownership away from us at a macro scale, at a social distancing, lockdown, stay home and protect the NHS and each other scale. But how much of that mindset persists in some of the other things we contemplate. I was chatting to a client the other day and she used a wonderful phrase in relation to her daughter’s impending wedding (due to have been on Good Friday). Just before the lock down started, she had counselled her daughter to ‘own the decision’ about what she should do about her wedding, you make the decision, you make the changes on your terms, you take some control. This really resonated with me and is what sowed the seeds of this blog. There are lots of things that are beyond our control, we don’t know when we will be able to revisit friends and family we haven’t physically seen for a while, return to places of work, resume playing sports or have a quiet pint in the pub after walking the dog. But there are lots of things we can control; we can make decisions about how we spend our time, how we build new and positive habits, learning new things, building and improving relationships, replacing the fence or remodelling the garden. We can also control the intentions we commit to, holiday plans, house moves, career changes, new pets – timescales may well shift, but we can control our intent. Another well-known and powerful model springs to mind, Stephen Covey’s Circle of Influence and Circle of Concern.

I guess the thing I am observing or worried about (for me included) is that we respond to the ‘parental’ decisions by adopting a reactive focus. We are operating in ‘lockdown limbo’ a phrase I am hearing more and more from people I speak to, where we are waiting to be told what happens next then we can make plans, take decisions and move forward. The last few weeks have seen organisations get really busy ‘operationalising’ what they do in a way that means they maintain productivity within the constraints of lockdown. I have heard some incredible stories about how businesses have scaled up for maximum output / delivery in a matter of days where ‘peak’ normally takes months of planning and preparation. I have heard stories of how the move to ‘virtual working’ has been on the cards for a while, the roll out of Microsoft Teams staggering along, only for the need to escalate to such a level that seemingly insurmountable problems have been resolved, leaders with no option but to trust their teams and people forced to adopt new ways of working. It is amazing what can get done when needs must. 😊

But the bulk of that ‘operationalising’ activity has been done, the organisations who are still working have found a way to make it work and are settling into a new normal, but with a fear or excitement that sometime in the next few weeks we can ‘go back to the old normal’. (Interestingly – the thought of returning to the office is also causing some people to worry too – we can discuss that another time.) It is this uncertainty of when we might return and to what extent we will return that I think is causing ‘lockdown limbo’. I guess my gentle challenge or provocation is – are we missing a trick in the weeks to come by waiting? Are we too easily caught up on a new operational treadmill and is now the time for leaders to step off that treadmill and start thinking a little more strategically about what is to come and how they can shape rather than just respond to the future challenges and opportunities.

I talk a lot when I am working with leadership teams about the 3 levels of work that we are paid to do. There is Operational activity – doing the do, transactional and immediate in nature; Leadership work (as described in my last blog) and there is Strategic work – setting longer term goals and direction, making decisions about the future, identifying the priorities and areas to focus on. In my experience, wherever I go, in whatever organisation or industry and at whatever level, most folk still have the balance wrong and are spending too much time in the operational box. The last few weeks have dramatically challenged leaders to focus on operational and leadership activities and I have heard some great stories of leaders really stepping up and following through with those 5 Leadership practices to make a significant difference to the engagement and wellbeing of the people that work for them. But is now the time to begin to switch focus if that is possible? What have you learned as a team / function in the last few weeks? What has gone brilliantly and you should continue to replicate regardless of going back to ‘normal’? What new capabilities and disciplines give you the chance to change your service offering / ways of working for the better even when you can go back to working co-located? I have explored these questions with some people and keep experiencing a little resistance – “we don’t know what is going to happen or when, we are in ‘lockdown limbo.’” This is true to an extent – but there is plenty you do know and plenty we can plan for.   Perhaps now is the best time to give yourselves and your teams the permission to imagine how you want it to be; how do you want to work in the future? What priorities should you focus on? What will make the biggest difference? Is there a chance to shape what you want the new normal to be for the sake of your teams, customers and stakeholders – rather than just end up there by definition of the passing of time?

My encouragement is to carve out some space with your team to address some of these questions – if nothing else to break the pattern of the operational focus that has been keeping you busy and to lift the heads of your people a little further towards the horizon for their development and wellbeing. How about the following set of questions as a prompt or an opportunity to encourage some different thinking.

  • What has gone brilliantly over the last few weeks that we can be really proud of?
  • What has surprised us over the last few weeks?
  • What have we been disappointed by in the last few weeks?
  • What would our stakeholders congratulate us on or call out in appreciation?                                        Learning is irrelevant without action – so how do we turn these insights into actionSo what have we learned as a result of these reflections above and what actions can we take moving forward?

At a high level – why not use the simple Help and Hinder model to engage your teams in creating input and insight to help define how you shape the future – regardless of when or what the government decree.

We will be on the receiving end of new decisions over the coming weeks, our world will continue to tilt on its axis and we will not be able to change some of that, but challenge yourself and your teams about what you can get hold of and control, now and in the future.

Potential Action? – ask yourself honestly what decision/s have you been putting off? Then what part of that decision could you make now, what level of intent could you describe that gives you a little bit more control?