A leader told me this the other day: “We have paralyzed our people. We have meetings before meetings, to discuss what we’re going to discuss in the upcoming meeting.”
And that was true even before the chaos of COVID-19.
In the midst of a crisis like this, organizations need leaders who can act and people who trust each other. Instead, we have gotcha cultures where people are afraid to do anything – afraid to even talk about doing anything – without assurances that they won’t get in trouble for breaking a standard that was set years ago that’s no longer relevant to the realities of today.
Before COVID-19, organizations and their leaders were already in crisis. Billions of dollars were being spent on transformation efforts to better serve a more informed and knowledgeable individual both in the workplace and marketplace. Disruption was in full swing.
You could think of each transformation as its own “mini crisis.” Now imagine thousands of “mini-crises” happening all at once, each in different phases and stages.
People in nearly every organization were being asked to change the way they do things, learn new concepts, operationalize new standards, and then accept and reach elevated levels of performance. Most of those transformation efforts meet similar challenges: resistance to embrace something new, frustration and exhaustion with implementation, a lack of agility to keep up, and not enough empathy along the way for those being asked to change.
When you compound this across thousands of “mini-crises” you begin to witness the totality of the broader challenge: transformation without transparency doesn’t work.
Leaders tend to expect that people will just buy in and figure out a way to adapt. And people probably would, if they knew what to expect. But most people have been through multiple “transformations” with no obvious outcome to prove it was worth it.
Organizations have cried wolf too many times, and they fail to appreciate and anticipate the levels of fatigue and mistrust they have created.
As my good friend, Dr. Jack Cox, once told me: “If you can’t trust your leader in the known, how can you trust your leader in the unknown?”
What I’ve just described is a snapshot of the chaos, confusion and instability that stands in the way of real progress when organizations make attempts to become more efficient, identify new predictability models and try to evolve. This has been the pattern for decades, especially in organizations that are well-financed and have the room to keep changing things for the sake of changing things. But this isn’t a recipe for sustainable growth nor one that appeals to top talent.
We have created a maze we can’t escape.
So, what has been the fundamental problem for organizations in search of innovative, sustainable growth? When you dig deeper, the real enemy has been standardization. And during this COVID-19 crisis it is becoming more apparent than ever as its limitations have been exposed.
In fact, it’s become crystal clear that pre-COVID, the most contagious virus that we are all guilty of spreading was the force of standardization.
We started to do things a certain way and declared that to be the standard. We judged others by how well they met that standard. In turn, they judged even more people by how well they met those existing standards. We only let people in the club if they can prove they already know the standards, and people can only learn the standards by already being part of the club.
No one questions the standards because those with enough power to raise the question got their power precisely because of those standards. So why would they ever want to question them and invite new thinking into the mix – when that new thinking might dilute their power?
Standardization is a virus that rapidly spread and multiplied in various shapes, forms and dimensions. For most corporate leaders it was a virus they enjoyed. In fact, they never wanted a cure. For others, they were in search of a cure for years, but the global pandemic was too strong to fight.
It can’t scale in its current form much longer.
We’re now in the midst of an actual global pandemic, and we’re seeing how fragile our systems are in real time. Organizations are struggling to adapt to a situation that changes by the hour, because when standards are too tight, we break rather than bend.
The pre-COVID crisis was already making leaders uncomfortable. It was disrupting old ways of thinking. It was exposing us to the limitations of efficiency-minded organizations and industries. It was bringing light to the virus called standardization.
Tomorrow will not bring more efficiency, but rather more healthy chaos. The organizations that survive it will be the ones who can navigate this chaos with an approach I call constructive interruption – a process of proactively interrupting the standards and routines that stifle our ability to adapt.
How will this crisis change the ways we think and behave in the future?
I posed that question to the Associate Dean, College of Arts & Sciences Faculty Chair and Associate Professor of Anthropology at Fairfield University, Dr. Scott Lacy.
Dr. Scott Lacy:
When my students and I explore how our human ancestors first domesticated fire to cook meat, we don’t ridicule our early ancestors for not having the foresight to create a beautiful, stainless steel induction stove. Quite the contrary, our eyes and minds expand as we begin to appreciate the innovation and curiosity that led to those first BBQs. Our abundant appreciation of the early grill masters is nothing short of our recognition of the first camp fires that ignited the trajectory to endless hours streaming the Great British Bake-Off.
Just as Homo sapiens home cooks owe their omelets to Homo erectus fire makers, the ways we think and behave in the future are a function of the ways that we are thinking and behaving now. So, as we re-imagine our post-pandemic lives, the C-Suite, and the future of work, let’s remember one thing: standardization is an enemy only if we refuse to let it g(r)o(w).
Standardization in the C-suite may not be a biological phenomenon, but it, like all culture, evolves to align with the dynamics of the world we live in. Following millions of years as upright walking apes without cellphones, and within the scope of a single generation, big data, social media, and artificial intelligence have fundamentally altered the human experience. Through digitally curated algorithms of life, we increasingly reconsider the future of work and what it means to be human. The go-to neurological system of the C-suite, standardization helps shepherd this ambiguity into processes and profits, but like our neurological system, it is increasingly ill-equipped to thrive in our exponentially changing 21st century world.
Ready or not, the Age of Personalization is upon us, built with the DNA of standardization. As we collectively find our way to the other side of this historically terrifying pandemic, our sentimental proclivities will draw us back to what we know, but those comforting standards and norms are old family photographs not adaptive blueprints for a new world. You can just as easily go back to ride your red tricycle as you can redeploy a standardized business model. Those who will try will likely find a tricycle is as bad a fit for adult legs as a standardized business model is for the dynamism of cognitive diversity in the Age of Personalization.
In the standardization era, our resources and energies are focused on survival, but because of its myopic and existential lens, standardization mistakes the survival of the organism/organization for the survival of the species. Personalization, on the other hand, strategically asserts our individuality and our interconnectedness as foundations of human organization and survival.
After all, it is the collective harmony of distinct individuals that makes any organization thrive.
The 2020 pandemic compels all of us, as individuals and organizations, to realign our missions and playbooks with the reality that our interconnectedness is ultimately all we have. With unknown pain and suffering on the horizon, a post-pandemic age will look an awful lot like what Glenn describes as the Age of Personalization. An age in which interdependency and inclusivity are cultivated as core strengths, and vulnerability and species-level consciousness are requisite leadership traits.
I appreciate the cultural and historical perspective that Dr. Lacy provides, especially at a time like now when we’re dealing with forces of change as massive as a global pandemic.
This is a unique opportunity in our lifetimes to be able to see so clearly a change in motion. We’re still in the middle of this crisis, and we don’t know what life will look like even in a few months. We do know that it won’t look like before. Our evolution is in progress.
What will we do with this opportunity?
Learn more at www.ageofpersonalization.com