There's No Going Back, But Be Wary of the 'New Normal'

Like it or not, you're now in the change business.

What leaders can learn from COVID-19, climate change and other global phenomena is that asynchronous change is here to stay. Regardless of their mission, successful leaders in government must recognize they are in the change business. Here are five imperatives for today’s leaders in these unprecedented times:

Heed the Demand Signal

Until recently, the change process involved psychologist Kurt Lewin’s classic three steps: 

  1. Unfreeze: Disrupt the current state. 
  2. Change: Create the future state. 
  3. Re-freeze: Adopt and normalize the new current state. 

Once the change was implemented, things went back to normal. Today, our relationship with change feels more like what organizational change theorist Peter Vaill described as “permanent whitewater.” Once we unfreeze and begin to change, re-freezing—if it occurs at all—is fleeting at best. Beware of what we’re calling “the new normal.” It mutes the demand signal and should offer no comfort. Lewin’s change process is still valid, but with this caveat: change persists, accelerates and disrupts with the irreverence of a persistent demand signal.

Go Forward

We can’t go back to the way things were. We can only go forward, as COVID-19 solutions bring new ways of doing and being. Social distancing will eventually stop but working and meeting remotely is here to stay. Business trips will resume but air travel will never be the same. What we innovate won’t go away. However, working together is as productive as ever thanks to Microsoft Teams and Zoom. Teams report greater cohesion and collaboration, along with virtual morning coffees and after-work happy hours. Of course we want to gather in-person again, and we will one day, but the way we work, play and define community will continue to transform because of COVID-19. Effective change leaders understand this, build on these changes and go forward.

See the Whole

When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told hospitals, “While you have operated separately in the past—even competitively—now we need you to work as one,” he was seeing the whole in a new way. He was no longer looking at individual New York hospitals as self-standing entities, but collectively as a system in which resources and capabilities could be shared as needs shifted, from day to day and place to place, and leveraged to benefit all New Yorkers. This meant healthcare workers could be more responsive, flexible and create change almost moment-by-moment.

Governor Cuomo asked hospital teams to work together at the speed of pandemic to transform their paradigm into an agile patient-centered health care delivery system that could respond to an asynchronous demand signal. Once you expand the whole so that you can see a network and all its connections and intersections, the less likely you are to go back—or want to go back—to “every hospital for itself.”  

Everybody Leads

Tone at the top matters. It can inspire us to lead from where we sit or discourage us from caring enough to take action. COVID-19 helped democratize what it means to lead and should remind leaders that their greatest imperative is to build leadership capabilities within their organization. We are seeing leadership everywhere during this pandemic, regardless of age, education or station in life. For example, people stayed at home because they were given the facts about the disease. We wear masks not just to protect ourselves but to protect others. We celebrate front-line workers, check on neighbors, organize a drive-by birthday or graduation celebration, and inquire genuinely about how our colleagues are faring.

Empathy coupled with action are qualities we want from our leaders. We want our leaders to see us, reach out to us and inspire us. To inform and encourage us. Leaders at all levels are doing that, not because of their title or authority but because it’s the right thing to do. And once we lead from where we sit, there is no going back.

Ask New Questions

Leaders ask themselves, “What question haven’t we asked that we should? What question are we afraid others will ask us that we’ll need to answer?” This is the nexus of learning and courage. Every crisis, surprise, and even success is a chance for us to pause and ask, “What is happening here? Are our lessons-learned serving us well and if not, why? Are we ignoring near misses or is it time to look at issues at the edge of our comfort zone? Alternatively, what is working well?” Leaders must pursue answers to new questions. The interrogative isn’t necessarily the most comfortable place to work, but it is where the future is born. Leaders require that we go forward—their work is to clear the way.

Writer Peter Block said, “How do you change the world? One room at a time. Which room? The one you’re in.” You can’t change the world or lead an organization from the room you were in yesterday, only from the room you are in today. The new Zoom room. With new windows and doors. And new sights.

Nina Kern is a Manager in Grant Thornton Public Sector’s organizational transformation practice and co-leads GT’s OCM Community of Practice.