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“We live in an age where the rate of change has been colossal. Colossal. Almost every week there's some transformation of some kind, whether technological or political or scientific, whatever. And I think it's bewildering to human beings to live in a time when they can't take anything as fixed - when everything is shifting and changing all the time”. Salman Rushdie
Reviewing my last 14 articles its incredulous to think that they have all been about the same subject -Coronavirus. I hoped that maybe last week would be the last but, no sooner had I written, musing about how we may have overreacted to the whole thing, than we were back in lockdown. Three days later the situation had changed again, and we were back to ‘normal’ (am I the only one that is starting to feel distinctly annoyed by that word which has been hijacked to take on a distasteful and near-obsolescent connotation?).
The speed at which our lives have changed and continues to change is bewilderingly fast. One minute I was having a board meeting realigning a marketing strategy for the year ahead and two weeks later I was getting my head around part-time and remote working and re-jigging financial budgets for the next quarter. Overnight some staff found themselves stuck outside the country, another was placed in quarantine, a new employee was just about to start, some staff felt panicked while others were simply thinking ‘what just happened’? Today I am working on a recession strategy and all of this in the space of three months.
And it is not just the situation on the ground that has changed. I have changed my viewpoint so many times during this pandemic that I no longer know what to think or predict. At the beginning I kept prophesying a quick disruption to business and life, soon to return to normal (that bloody word again), justifying my thinking by how unsustainable isolating citizens and effectively closing a country down is. I anticipated that as quickly as it happened, the return to business as usual would be the same., the virus a mere flash in a medical pan, soon under control and the world could breathe a sigh of relief and move on. Today I think that this crisis, like no other, will not be killed off easily and will have a lingering unpleasantness like a rotting carcass.
There is so much uncertainty around the duration and intensity of Coronavirus with people now talking about a second wave and so the pandemic may not recede in the second half of this year. That spells more confinement, worsening financial conditions, and more isolation which all adds up to a negative impact on people’s lives and livelihoods. Of course, this may not come to pass with the development of therapeutics and vaccines but even if we get over the worst of it, at least from a health crisis perspective, we will still be in the worst recession since the Great Depression, and far worse than the Global Financial Crisis of the Noughties.
On the ground business activity has been frozen in some sectors such as tourism and entertainment, while in others its semi frozen as in education but nowhere and no-one is immune from the chill wind of undermined confidence in the future. As restrictions have been eased, the path to economic recovery remains highly uncertain especially when we are still vulnerable to a second wave of infections. By most accounts, this is going to be a long recession, and we’re only at the start of its downward slope. The pundits are saying don’t count on a recovery until mid-2021, and even then, it may be slow. Not one for negativity, usually but I am assuming it may well get worse.
Viktor Frankl wrote “when we are no longer able to change a situation - we are challenged to change ourselves”.
There are typically three things which companies will do when faced with periods of change or recession.
Be in denial and do nothing, like a sort of organisational paralysis and in hope that somehow you survive.
Another common route is to go into adaptation mode which is where you make minor adjustments such as efficiency gains, cutting back on expenses, effectively nips and tucks to the existing business model.
The third and the place I feel we need to go at the moment is to have a fundamental rethink so that when the upturn comes which it always does (it can take a while, though the Great Depression actually lasted 10 years!) At the risk of sounding trite we need to view the crisis as an opportunity to fundamentally review our business model.
Many organisations can survive a recession but there is no guarantee you will survive the aftermath. Often during an upturn the organisation which hunkered down finds itself unable to compete due to lack of capacity or simply left behind because they failed to innovate. If during a recession the organisation focusses only on cost reduction, efficiency etc. they can suffer ‘corporate anorexia’ by just having pared down and tweaked what’s there and starved the organisation of developing new ideas. Similarly, while trying to get people and things to work better may seem like a good idea, the focus needs to be on working differently. So, this is the challenge we find ourselves with. Staying afloat AND fit for the future. As if we didn’t have enough on our plate before all of this!
Of course, it all could change tomorrow as nothing is fixed but we will still have everything to fix, that much is certain! In the words of W.B Yeats in his poem Easter 1916.
All changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.