Normal or not?

‘Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’  This Winston Churchill quote is just right for now.   We are not at the beginning of the end of the Covid-19 crisis.  It is going to be with us, perhaps for our lifetimes or longer, as other infectious illnesses are.

Virologist, Guido Vanham, in a World Economic Forum interview said,  ‘It [Covid-19] will probably never end, in the sense that this virus is clearly here to stay unless we eradicate it. And the only way to eradicate such a virus would be with a very effective vaccine that is delivered to every human being. We have done that with smallpox, but that’s the only example – and that has taken many years.’

So, I’m surprised by the number of meetings I’ve been in over the last couple of weeks in which people are talking about ‘going back to normal’, or ‘the next normal’ or ‘the new normal’, in ways suggesting that they are planning to ‘tweak’ their world view and their organisations a bit,  and in doing this things will be much the same as they were during 2019 or even up to early 2020.

This is a mistake.  We have had a wrenching global shock both individually and collectively.    Organisations are reeling from it, very few will be able to go back, or forward, to any form of ‘normal’ that looks anything like the pre Covid-19 crisis.

We know, and are experiencing, the  covid-19 pandemic, which, as the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) reports, ‘has led to society-wide lockdowns across the world, bringing all but commerce and services deemed most essential to a sudden halt, large portions of countries sheltering at home and unemployment spiking.’    As a result of the Covid-19 measures, the IMF, in its latest World Economic Outlook, forecasts the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

To examine this forecast, in April this year, the EIU, launched the Global Business Barometer, which will be updated monthly. The launch survey was ‘Based on an initial online survey of 2,758 executives from 118 countries, fielded from March 26th to April 6th’.  Respondents were asked ‘questions ranging from their outlook on the global economy and investment plans to operational and risk management strategies.’ The findings make grim reading.

The EIU states, ‘the world is not going to suddenly spring back and continue as though nothing has happened. Forty percent of executives we surveyed answered it would take “less than a year” from the outbreak for their business to recover. That is cheering and we hope they are proven prescient. But 46% of those surveyed believe it will take between 1-2 years and 10% believe it will take 3-5 years. The former seems realistic, the latter disastrous.’

The EIU comments, ‘Few if any industries will be spared from the impact of covid-19 and the various policy responses to it. Some will be much harder hit than others. Tourism and travel is an obvious example, as is the consumer goods sector (outside of food and other essentials). With many factories shuttered across the globe, supply-chain disruptions and demand cratering, manufacturing is also forecast to experience significant pain in the short to medium-term.’

Leandro Herrero, in his inimitable way is clear ‘We need to feed-forward. Not feed-back. We don’t need a thermostat. We need a compass. Move North or East or West or South, but never back to normal. Because normal is not waiting for us.  …  The so called ‘new normal’ (this thing is sticky) is for creators, makers, builders. Not for decorators of the same old room. Not going back to the pot of paint to finish the ceiling, that was left behind.’

His is a call to move on from our paradigm of ‘normal’ that is not waiting for us.  Others suggest similarly.  For example, the UK Guardian notes,

‘The global impact of the coronavirus pandemic poses a fundamental question: is this one of those historic moments when the world changes permanently, when the balance of political and economic power shifts decisively, and when, for most people, in most countries, life is never quite the same again?

Put more simply, is this the end of the world as we know it? And, equally, could the crisis mark a new beginning?

Genuinely pivotal global moments, watersheds or turning points (pick your own terminology) are actually quite rare. Yet if the premise is correct – that there can be no return to the pre-Covid-19 era – then it poses many unsettling questions about the nature of the change, and whether it will be for better or worse.’

What I’m not seeing much of in my day-to-day work is organisational leaders consciously and reflectively discussing and debating these larger questions.  What I’m seeing is a bias to action to get things ‘back on track’, in much the same way as they were pre-Covid-19.

The numerous ‘R’ words from management consultants are not helpful in encouraging time for thought.  For the most part, they are based on a ‘normal’ management 3 – 5 step frameworks.  For example, McKinsey’s advice to leaders in early April was to think and act across 5 horizons: resolve, resilience, return reimagination and reform.

Now (May) they propose: recovering revenue, rebuilding operations, rethinking the organization, and accelerating the adoption of digital solutions.  (OK – no final ‘R’ word).

Bain – also in April – has Protect, Recover and Retool.  While Accenture’s advice for the Covid-19 crisis (that could have been given at any point in the last decade) is to ‘establish long-term strategies for greater resilience. Apply lessons learned … to create a systems and talent roadmap that better prepares your company for future disruptions.

  • Define long-term transformation strategies that prioritize and address antiquated applications, architectures and infrastructure, highly manual processes and underfunded cyber resilience.
  • Self-fund your transformation through small incremental programs that drive efficiency and free up capital.
  • Leverage ecosystem partners to shift to an asset-light model and mitigate vulnerable dependencies, choosing partners resilient to global risks.’

If we are reaching a turning point in containing the Covid-19 pandemic then it is time to recognise that this is as Churchill said, ‘perhaps the end of the beginning’ but the beginning of something that doesn’t relate to any prior ‘normal’.

Geoff Mulgan put the opportunity well in his piece How not to waste a crisis. He says:  ‘The next few months will bring intensive learning on how to manage the crisis, as well exit strategies. But we also need to start planning for the peace. What new methods can be adapted from the crisis? … What new ways of thinking has it thrown up?…  we should never waste a crisis. An incredible amount of thought, creativity and commitment is going into the responses around us right now. But how can we harness some of that for longer term [positive] impact?’

Similarly, economist Milton Friedman noted:

“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

Do you think this is the end of the beginning and should we avoid any thinking about ‘normal’ as we have known it?   What ideas have you got lying around that will produce real change?  Let me know.

Image: Li Zhong: Mercury Company in Full Production, April 2020


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