Originally published on Intellyx.com
It’s been almost exactly one year since the COVID-19 pandemic threw everything into turmoil.
And collectively, we’ve been running in place ever since.
Despite all the talk about pandemic-induced transformation, most organizations have merely responded to a rapidly-changing reality as fast as possible. That sort of reactionary response was appropriate and even admirable, but transformation it wasn’t.
As we begin to see a light at the end of the tunnel, an opening is materializing for enterprise leaders. Most, however, will not seize it because they either fail to see it in the first place, or because they are unprepared to do so. But that doesn’t have to be you.
The Transformational Year that Wasn’t
Let’s start with a bit of truth.
We’ve all heard the trope that there’s been more transformation in the last (fill in the number of weeks or months since the start of the pandemic) than we’ve seen in (fill in some number of years — the bigger, the better!).
Unfortunately, it just isn’t true.
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In reality, what we saw was organizations that were able to overcome years of inertia in a matter of a few short months. Now, as someone who spent most of my career in large enterprises, I get the miraculousness of that feat. But that doesn’t make it transformation.
And I also don’t want to imply that there weren’t herculean efforts taking place. Even if the pandemic caused barriers to fall like the walls of Jericho, that still left years of work to accomplish seemingly overnight. Many of you admirably rose to that challenge and achieved extraordinary results that saved your organization’s reputation and livelihood and, in some cases, the lives of your customers.
Still, we have to acknowledge that all of these massive responsive efforts were just that: responses. They were reactionary. They were essential and commendable, but they were not the years of transformation wrapped up into a few weeks that people claimed them to be — for two simple reasons.
The first is that authentic transformation demands a re-envisioning of almost everything to reorient the organization around delivering a differentiated customer experience. Second, real transformation takes timebecause it represents a fundamental shift in how people function, work, and interact.
And achieving those two aims requires one more thing that has been in short supply in most organizations.
The Intellectual Curiosity Gap
Ok, I know I’m going to get myself into some trouble here, but this is an article about facing some hard truths that must be said. So here goes.
I think that many organizations have missed a huge transformational opportunity by not being bold enough during this period of pandemic-induced disruption. Particularly after organizations had survived the initial impact of the first few months, most enterprise leaders went into a hunker-down-and-wait-and-see mode.
As a result, most missed the opportunity to move beyond that initial reactionary response and do some real transformational work.
And the worst part is that most of you are about to miss your opportunity again. The reason you missed it then, and why you might miss it again if you don’t shift course, is the same: a lack of intellectual curiosity.
I told you I was going to get myself into trouble.
As I’ve talked to many enterprise executives over the last several months about their pandemic responses, one theme rose to the top again and again: execution. It makes sense if you think about it. The bias towards execution is literally baked into the conceptualization of being an executive. That’s your raison d’être.
For most enterprise executives, the pandemic response was your moment to shine — and it was no time to stray from your well-known playbooks. While we may have called it the great work from home experiment, there was little genuine experimentation happening. The efforts were all about executing tactical moves from the office to home, from physical to virtual, from centralized to distributed, pure and simple.
But after the initial aftermath, few enterprise leaders have stepped back and asked, “what’s next?” And I believe the reason is that the next step requires intellectual curiosity. You must be willing to move beyond execution and explore the possibilities of what the future can hold. It demands that you enact a vision — but it’s a vision you must first craft.
However, this need for a forward-looking transformative vision has been what has held back enterprise leaders from true transformation all along.
Seizing the Coming Opportunity
As we all start to look hopefully towards a post-pandemic future, there will be another tremendous opportunity that will present itself for enterprise leaders. That opportunity will exist because most organizations will fail to see it.
Now, I know that sounds somewhat paradoxical and circular, but most organizations will see this period as a time to “get back to normal.” As a result, it will create an opportunity for those leaders that see this period, instead, as a time to reinvent themselves for a different future. The opportunity will exist merely because most won’t see it as such.
What most organizations are going to do, instead, is to try and cherry-pick those parts of the last twelve months that either worked well or which they feel they can’t put back in the bottle. Then, they’ll spend the rest of their energy trying to get people back into the office and make things like they were before — as if nothing has happened.
But there may never be a better moment to execute fundamental transformation in your organization. Those walls of inertia have fallen, and there is a genuine need to shift the organization’s business and operating models to adapt to our new reality. But subconsciously or not, your organization is itching to rebuild those towering walls of inertia, and absent a vision of a new, better, and transformed future, the path of least resistance is the one that leads back to the way we think things have always worked.
The Intellyx Take: A Time for Authentic Leadership
There will, however, be a few leaders and organizations that seize this moment to truly transform their organizations for a new era. If you want to count yourself among them, you must do two simple (but not easy) things.
First, you need to turn on your powers of observation. This step is where your intellectual curiosity, combined with a healthy dose of mindfulness, will pay off in spades. You need to temporarily put away your scepter of execution and simply observe what’s really happening within your organization’s culture, with your customers, and within your market.
This observation isn’t about immediately developing a plan of attack. Take some time to just pay attention to how your employees are interacting, what your customers are doing, and how things have worked and shifted over the last twelve months. You will inevitably find things that make you wonder why people react or do things in a certain way. Engage with that curiosity, explore the questions, and see where the answers lead you.
The big problem with crafting a vision for your team and organization’s unique future is that there’s no simple playbook to follow. You’re going to have to make this up yourself. But as you earnestly go down this road, your vision for the future will begin to materialize.
As it does, the second step is merely to act on it. This step isn’t an act of clarity. It’s an act of courage. It will demand that you zig as your competitors zag — that you turn away from “returning to normal” and instead be willing to use this moment to reimagine who you are as a leader and as an organization.
Your moment is rapidly approaching. Which path will you choose?
© 2021, Intellyx, LLC. Intellyx publishes the weekly Cortex and Brain Candy newsletters, and advises business leaders and technology vendors on their digital transformation strategies. Intellyx retains editorial control over the content of this document. At the time of writing, none of the parties mentioned in this story are Intellyx customers.