Note: this article is based on the Dutch situation, but probably translates to other countries.
The COVID-19 crisis forced us to organize differently. It brought uncertainty and ambiguity and required adaptation and flexibility— In particular in health and safety and in education, but also in political decision-making and in providing the necessities of life. With new words like “one-and-a-half-meter economy” (“anderhalve meter economie”, probably the Dutch word of the year 2020) and advice not to book summer holidays, we were prepared for “the new reality”. Besides all the negative effects of the crisis, we had the possibility to also learn from those organizations forced to reinvent themselves within hours or days, even if we were fortunate enough to have a little more time to adapt. And adjustment has been necessary for every organization. From observing organisations who rapidly adapted to meet the challenge, I derived some “lessons learned”, which may help you and your organization to continue adapting.
The Netherlands on ventilation
With COVID-19, some people ended up in intensive care on ventilators, to give their body the opportunity to recover. The Dutch economy was more or less on a ventilator too, following the economic measures taken by the Dutch government. The goal was to give our economy, our organizations, the opportunity to recover, to adapt.
Jasper van Kuijk (a Dutch publicist) wrote in a Volkskrant article about how many organizations today are mainly looking at improving efficiency. He looked at how that way of organizing means that the flexibility, the resilience, of many of our organizations has tremendously decreased. In 2020, we all entered a world that was more unpredictable than ever, where we could no longer calculate the 'right’ way forward. There was no assurance that the actions we had taken would obtain the desired results, because each action spins off unexpected behaviour, which again necessitates new actions. So, we had to accept that every action has unwanted side effects, but that this should not prevent us from acting on our most educated guesses. Acting late i not a valid option, but neither is just doing something without thinking.
What did we see?
The Dutch healthcare system, like those worldwide, was hugely challenged by this COVID-19 crisis. The number of patients, but also the severity of their symptoms increased alarmingly, meaning the Netherlands health system had to quickly re-organize itself. It had to focus on what was needed and on providing added value. It was imperative that time was not wasted in following administrative procedures but rather spent providing care! It was no longer a case of ‘specialism first’, but all hands-on deck— specialists for specialist tasks and generalists to keep things going. Medical staff experimented within the ‘real’ rules (not the administrative rules): could they reuse used mouth masks by sterilizing or cleaning them? Could they separate clean and dirty areas, and work with semi-permanent teams? Responsibility was assigned on a per room or per corridor (rather than per discipline) basis. Several times per day it was assessed what the foreseeable future (sometimes hours or days) looked like and how the challenges could be addressed. People doing the work determined what happens, ‘management’ ensured that they were facilitated with square meters, beds, equipment, doors, mouths, glasses, childcare. Smart decisions around what needed to be done in the workplace (care, cleaning, ensuring safety and health) and what could be done better centrally (facilitating space, providing face masks, etc). People doing the work used their talents, and management supported them in this, so that action could be taken quickly, and adjustments made with equal speed —a typical feature of a resilient and flexible organization.
How schools responded to the crisis was also illustrative. They had to rapidly learn how lessons could be delivered through new technologies. They had to abandon strict record-keeping, even dropping some school tests, and focus on what was really needed, often having to re-structure within hours or days to continue to make learning possible. At the same time, they also had to continue physically caring for pupils requiring additional care.
Experiments were also conducted based on political decisions. Politicians had to rapidly learn and adjust. Additional decisions were made weekly, sometimes daily. And of course, there were always critics who “knew better,” however, criticism and opposition had, and have, an important role to play, namely pointing out how something could (possibly) be improved, adding extra information and preventing tunnel vision. This is the way to be agile in an unpredictable world.
The government and RIVM (the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment) had to strike a balance between the number of hospital beds required and likely to be required, the number of fatalities / those suffering from COVID19, economic losses and social sustainability. It was impossible test every measure taken beforehand. To wait until they were sure in such an unpredictable situation would have been unacceptable — a case of ‘analysis paralysis’. Instead, they had to be informed by experts, learn from what was happening in other comparable places in the world and from previous experiences with other situations, and then act. That required(political) courage.
Many people began working from home, with many organizations finding out that this actually worked fine. They realised that people were not 'human resources', but social beings with a well-developed sense of responsibility and brains. People who proved to be perfectly capable of getting their work done in these changed, extreme circumstances and still providing added value. Would they not be able to do that under more normal circumstances too? Would they not be able to work just as well, or even better, without all kinds of processes, procedures, rules, management, and directives, simply by using their knowledge and experience, combined with a sense of responsibility?
Not everything goes well all of the time (but we could argue it never did), and let's be honest: to be at home, with children home-schooling and only communicating with co-workers and loved ones via a screen, required some getting used to. Most of us suffered emotionally from the lack of social and physical contact. We recognized that things were a little more difficult, both in business and our private lives, but how, surprisingly — or perhaps unsurprisingly, most things still went well. Building a society, an organisation, with people working relatively independently, appeared to be possible. Only where people were overwhelmed or incapable was help necessary — to prevent a lack of learning and to support those who could not live without proper support. Solidarity and (central) coordination were required in those situations —and only in those situations.
Examples of organizations that went through this earlier
Many organisations, before the COVID-19 crisis, had been dealing with increasing uncertainty and unpredictability. Not because of a health crisis, but because they had to deal with major shifts in their ‘ecosystem’. By an ecosystem, I mean the full circumstances in which organizations operate: with their suppliers (the 'supply chain'), their customers and clients, their competitors, their social context, and their physical environment. A sustainable, living, adaptable, resilient ecosystem is constantly evolving, and constantly adapting to changes inside and outside that ecosystem. Sometimes rapidly, sometimes slowly. And, of course, sometimes ecosystems perish completely or partially because the requested adaptability cannot be provided.
We have seen organizational ecosystems change, due to changing customer demands, changing norms in society, new technological possibilities, and system disruptions. We all experience this and have the feeling that it’s all going at a moderate pace. But when you compare the situation of late 2019 and 10-15 years earlier, you will see big differences in financial systems, transport, communication, food, sustainability, energy and just about everywhere.
Many organizations had already started looking for other ways of organizing before the COVID-19 crisis and answers had already been found, answers which, fortunately, we saw reflected in the COVID-19 crisis, just as we saw the problems encountered by these flexible, resilient organizations
What can we learn?
I do not pretend to have ready-made solutions for all organizations of the future. I see a number of things that I have seen more often in flexible, resilient organizations, which I want to draw your attention to. Perhaps to find inspiration, a way forward?
- Accept the unpredictability and volatility of the situation. Do not seek salvation in ‘false’ security, but in flexibility and resilience. Focus more on customers instead of on upscaling and processes.
- Doing the right thing is more important than doing something right. Effectiveness is more important than efficiency. It is not a case of either /or— find the right balance!
- Experiment (but be aware of what can go wrong) and learn. Don't think you can calculate everything upfront, because you can't. Allow yourself to make mistakes (within limits).
- Trust in people, collaborate and cooperate in small (‘multi-disciplinary’) teams of generalists, working on assignments they can handle (1 corridor, 1 room). Be aided by specialists. People are not ‘human resources’.
- Focus leadership on facilitating these teams, not on checking up on what they are doing (checking up on people costs more money.) Centralize wisely. Administration focuses on learning and improving, not on controlling.
- Organize safety nets, where necessary, for those in need.
- The main purpose of your organisation is to achieve added value within and with your ecosystem. This results in meaning and focus, which people need to be able to work independently. Take your role in your ecosystem.
- People like to be in close proximity and need to work together. The tools established during the pandemic appear to be working out relatively well, perhaps even better than many people had imagined. But working from home is not a solution for everything.
Perhaps some of these ideas sound good, perhaps some give you shivers! While working on your organisation's future, see if you can use them; they might help you look at things from another perspective. It will certainly provide value if only to reassure you that you’re doing the right things. The ideas presented here are far from new or ground-breaking; they have been around and successfully applied in many organizations. They might even help you!
My idea was to take you through some ideas that may help you in the near future. When your organisation has to adapt to flexibility and resilience in your ecosystem, there are no easy solutions. You will need to learn when and how this will manifest itself in your ecosystem, you may want to take the lead. Hopefully, this blog will provide some insights that might help you. If you do have choices in the future, realize that the guidelines provided here seem simple, but in reality, may not always fit your situation perfectly. So: start experimenting, learning, start doing. Make your own mistakes, and avoid those mistakes others have already made. And please, do not “implement” but rather grow and learn and find out what works in your situation.