Should covid-19 stop or accelerate organizations' transformation? In times of crisis, priorities shift and several companies hesitate to pursue, or not, the organizational transformation they have started. Should they spend their precious time on it? Can they afford such a project while they are trying to survive financially? Does the crisis justify a more stringent management?
Is it really a good idea for companies to stop their ongoing transformation?
Does it allow them to focus on emergencies or does it take them away from what is essential?
When you begin a genuine transformation, you are aiming for fundamental improvement on several levels:
Giving meaning, a common purpose, to the company, to the teams and to each of their members;
Refocusing activities on what makes it possible to achieve this purpose, on what creates value in the company;
Embodying the values that make the company strong;
Valuing the contribution of each individual to the organization by establishing appropriate roles, assigning clear responsibilities and, above all, by granting true autonomy to employees;
Sharing leadership at all levels of the organization so that decisions are made by those who are best able to decide;
Establishing a culture of continuous improvement in which problems are solved quickly and opportunities are seized when they arise;
Developing the full potential of employees to grow both personally and professionally;
Improving the company's performance by making it more flexible and adaptable to internal and external changes.
The current situation should not be a break but a change booster
Transformation does not only mean creating a culture of employee well-being in which everyone feels motivated, listened to and respected. It is about changing the culture to improve business performance by better meeting everyone's basic needs for meaning, inclusion, autonomy and personal development.
It is not about changing for the sake of changing, but about seeking an improvement in collective performance by building on the values that have enabled the company's development, reinforcing them through new practices and creating new ones if necessary. Today, the frequent "We've always done it this way" blockage is losing its strength because the situation is pushing us to find a new way of operating.
Spontaneous collective intelligence
We see in several companies that, in difficult times, a real solidarity develops and that people at all levels of the organization want to participate in decisions and take responsibility for the good of the company.
Protecting the team, the individual and the organization
Protecting the team - An example is a consumer credit company where employees have collectively chosen to go on short-time working to prevent some people, including salespeople, from going on full economic unemployment. They also decided to redistribute their tasks so that no one was left without work.
Protecting the person - We can also talk about this notarial office in which the employees decided together that one certain employee would not do any economic unemployment or telework at all because she would be in danger if she stayed at home with her partner.
Protecting the organization - We can also talk about an architectural office in which a collective decision was taken to reduce salaries in order to cope with the crisis.
Could these decisions have been made unilaterally by management? Probably. Would they have gotten the same support? Nothing is less certain. These examples show that, far from causing people to withdraw into themselves, the current situation reinforces the need for collectivity, authenticity, trust and responsibility.
A strong adjustment to external constraints
The quarantine that we are experiencing has a strong impact on all organizations. None of them have chosen to switch to full telework for several weeks, nor to see their workload decrease (or increase) with economic fluctuations. However, each organization has to reorganize itself to cope with these changes. This requires flexibility from employees: some have to set up a workspace at home, sometimes use their own equipment, participate in remote meetings, etc. This requires a flexible approach.
It also requires flexibility from employers: adaptability of schedules for people with children at home or whose relatives are affected by the virus, understanding and empathy for those whose parent is in direct contact with the sick or isolated in a rest home, trust in employees who are no longer physically present.
Suddenly, the ability of organizations to respond to external constraints becomes crucial not for their competitiveness, but for their survival. To enable their transformation in this context, they need to strengthen their adaptability by emphasizing autonomy, taking initiatives, fluid management of different roles, frequent coordination and quick decisions.
Conviction and trust
Pursuing transformation in a crisis situation is not easy. The stress and discomfort generated can push the leaders and managers of an organization to get back to old hierarchical reflexes. A backtracking which, given the seriousness of the situation, seems secondary to the priority of maintaining, whatever the cost, the company's activities. But any leader who has begun the transformation with sincere conviction will realize, on the contrary, that this is not the time to give up.
It is today that we must show that we have real confidence in the collective intelligence and in the members of the organization. We must also remember our company’s purpose and give everyone the autonomy and flexibility to achieve it. In this context, it is important to show that employees are not stuck in one function, but can take on different roles, specific to the situation. Finally, it is today that teams must be given the opportunity to reinvent themselves in order to be able to face tomorrow.
Stopping a transformation in a time of crisis means giving a signal to all staff that there is no conviction, that the transformation is not fundamental to the company. This would trigger a lack of understanding, or even a loss of credibility and confidence among the staff. All the progress made will be lost and the company risks finding itself in a worse situation, due to a possible disengagement of staff, than before the transformation began.
The pace of the transformation can be adapted, but it is crucial that the momentum is maintained, that teams and individuals continue on their journey. Stopping the transformation is probably stopping it for good. It will be extremely difficult to restart it after the crisis.
We are fortunate to live in an era where technology allows us to stay connected despite the quarantine. The definition of different roles and their responsibilities, team development, coaching of key people, tactical meetings where we coordinate and bring up the points to be discussed as a team, meetings to evolve the organization, all this can be done remotely. In a less comfortable way, of course, but with the message that it really matters for the company and that the desire for change is sincere.
An investment for a not-so-distant future
A fundamental transformation always requires time and investment. Even if you are convinced that this investment will pay off in the long term, it is sometimes difficult to accept spending time on it when the business is at risk in the short term. However, it is necessary to agree to do so. In many cases, continuing the transformation in the current situation means accepting losses in efficiency and energy. It means renouncing improvements which, even if they are aimed at the long term, can already be beneficial very quickly. Taking the time to take a few moments in an emergency situation means ensuring that something solid is put in place quickly.
Clarifying everyone's roles, for example, will indeed take a few hours for the people in a team, but how much going back and forth will be avoided? How much time is wasted today wondering who is in charge of a certain activity? What is the waiting time for certain decisions where we do not know who can take the initiative and who is likely to be impacted?
Learning the consent decision process is tedious at the outset because you do not master the process and are often not well prepared. But quickly, it creates a gain because you no longer have to seek consensus, the organization becomes flexible and quick to make decisions, to implement initiatives, to develop new ideas, to adapt to constraints. When the question is no longer "Is the proposal perfect?" but becomes "Is the proposal safe enough to be tried?”.
So, yes, cultural changes take time, they require us to recall things over and over again. New practices must prove themselves to be fully accepted. Of course, the crisis pushes us to put out the fires created by the emergency, but it is by reinventing ourselves when the situation pushes us to do so that we can more easily bounce back.
Conclusion: Resolve the crisis today while thinking about the "aftermath".
The crisis must be resolved today, but we must also think about the future. How will the lockdown lifting take place? In which mindset will the teams come back? What should the new "normal" situation be? What lessons will we learn from this exceptional experience? Every crisis is a threat to an organisation, but once this threat is overcome it can become a real opportunity. The situation is a test of the authenticity of the transformation. The message that will come out of it is crucial for everyone's buy-in within the company.