Note: this article is based on the Dutch situation, but probably translates to other countries.
The COVID-19 crisis forces us to organize differently. It brings uncertainty, ambiguity, requires adaptation and flexibility. In particular in health and safety, in education, but also in political decision-making and in providing the necessities of life. And now in the Netherlands, gradually, we are preparing for this crisis to continue for some time to come. With new words like “one and a half meter economy” (“anderhalve meter economie”, probably Dutch word of the year 2020), advice not to book the summer holidays yet, we are being prepared for “the new reality”. Besides all the negative effects, we have the possibility to also learn from those organizations which are now forced to reinvent themselves within hours or days. Even if we are fortunate enough to have a little more time to adapt. And adjustment will, most likely, be necessary for every organization, unfortunately. From observing organisations who are rapidly adapting to meet the challenge, I have derived some “lessons learned”, which may help you and your organization to adapt.
The Netherlands on ventilation
With COVID-19, some people end up in intensive care and kept on a ventilator to give their body the opportunity to recover. The Dutch economy is more or less on a ventilator by the economic measures the Dutch government has taken ( “three months, and we can repeat that”). The goal is to give our economy, our organizations, the opportunity to recover, to adapt. And we must take full advantage of this opportunity. Because, as said before, we are now forced to reinvent our organizations.
Jasper van Kuijk (a Dutch publicist) recently wrote in a Volkskrant article about how many organizations today mainly looked at improving efficiency. How that way of organizing now means that the flexibility, the resilience, of many of our organizations has tremendously decreased. With a shock, we have entered a world that is unpredictable, where we can no longer calculate the ‘right’ way forward. There is no assurance that the actions we have taken have the right effects, because each action spins off unexpected behaviour. Which again needs some new actions. So, we must accept that every action has unwanted side effects, but this should not prevent us from acting on our best guess. Acting late is not a valid option either. By the way, this is of course not meant to be a license to do just do something without thinking.
What do we see?
Our health care is adapting to a huge challenge in this COVID-19 crisis . The number of patients, but also the severity of their symptoms is increasing alarmingly. And so, the Healthcare sector in the Netherlands has quickly organized itself differently. Focus on what is needed, on providing added value. Don’t lose time in following administrative procedures but provide care! (Do you also notice that we hear so little from our insurance companies, who usually are very keen on these procedures, nowadays ??) No ‘specialism first’, but all hands on deck, specialists for specialist tasks and generalists to keep things going. Experiment within the ‘real’ rules (not the administrative rules): can we reuse used mouth masks by sterilizing or cleaning them? Separating clean and dirty areas, work with semi-permanent teams. Responsibility per room or corridor (rather than per discipline). Several times per day assess what the foreseeable future (sometimes hours or days) looks like and how the challenges can be addressed. People doing the work determine what happens, ‘management’ ensures that they are facilitated with square meters, beds, equipment, doors, mouths, glasses, childcare. Smart decisions of what needs to be done in the workplace (care , cleaning, ensuring safety and health ) and what can be done better centrally (facilitating space, providing face masks, etc. ). People doing the work use their talents, management supports them in this. So that action can be taken quickly and adjustments can be made quickly. A typical feature of a resilient and flexible organization.
The example of the schools is also illustrative. They are rapidly learning how lessons can be delivered through new technologies, how to ensure safety and attention. Not too strict on keeping records, even dropping some school tests. Focus on what is really needed, often re-structure within hours or days and continuing to make learning possible. And at the same time still physically caring for the children who need additional care. The entire organization is back to what they once stood for, focused on its role in society, its goal.
Experiments are also being conducted with political decisions. Politicians are rapidly learning and adjusting. Additional decisions are made weekly, sometimes daily. And of course there are always critics who “know better”, but let’s face it: the world is unpredictable , and “I told you” is the most banal thing you can say right now. Surround yourself with experts, make informed choices and keep a close eye on their effects and adjust them as quickly as necessary. Criticism, opposition has an important role, namely pointing out how it can (possibly) be improved, adding extra information, preventing tunnel vision. This way you are agile in an unpredictable, unpredictable world.
The government and RIVM (Dutch expertise institute on public health and environment) balance between the number of hospital beds, the number of fatalities / those suffering from COVID19, economic losses and social sustainability. And that at a time when the effect of measures now (which influence the degree of infection, which you only see 2 weeks later in numbers of infections, 3 weeks later in hospital beds, and 4 weeks later in intensive care beds … ) comes much later , so you are steering almost in the blind. You cannot test every measure you take. To wait until you are sure, ‘analysis paralysis ‘ is unacceptable. So you will have to be informed by experts, learn from what is happening in other comparable places in the world, learn from previous experiences with other situations, and then act. That takes (political) courage.
Many people are now working at home, with many organizations finding out that this is actually fine. People are not ‘human resources’, but social beings with a well-developed sense of responsibility and brains. People who prove to be perfectly capable of getting their work done in these changed, extreme circumstances, still providing added value. Would they suddenly not be able to do that under more normal circumstances? And these people turn out to be fine without all kinds of processes, procedures, rules, management, directives etc . Just by acting independently, based on a sense of responsibility, combined with knowledge and experience.
Not everything goes well all of the time (but let’s argue it never did), and let’s be honest: to be at home, provide home school, and only communicate with co-workers and loved ones using a screen, we all are still in the process of getting used to this. Most of us really suffer emotionally from the lack of social and physical contact. We recognize things get a little more difficult, both in business and in private. And how, surprisingly or perhaps unsurprisingly, most goes well. Building a society, an organization, on people working relatively independently, appears to be possible. Only where people are overwhelmed, incapable, help should be provided. To prevent lacks in learning, to support those who cannot live without proper support. Solidarity and (central) coordination are required in these situations. And only in these situations.
Examples of organizations that have gone through this earlier
Many organizations, in recent years, have been dealing with increasing uncertainty and unpredictability. Not because of a crisis like COVID-19, but because there had to deal with major shifts in their ‘ecosystem’. By an ecosystem I mean the full situation in which organizations operate: with their suppliers (the ‘supply chain’), their customers and clients, their competitors, their social context, their physical environment. A sustainable, living, adaptable, resilient ecosystem is constantly evolving, constantly adapting to changes inside and outside that ecosystem. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow. 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, system disruptions. We all experience this and have the feeling 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. The financial system, transport, communication, food, sustainability and energy, substantial changes everywhere.
Many organizations have started looking for other ways of organizing. Answers have already been found. And (fortunately) we also see these answers reflected in the current crisis. Also, the problems encountered by these flexible, resilient organizations are reflected in the current period of the corona measures. But now, necessarily, at a much faster rate.
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 unpredictability of the situation. Do not seek salvation in ‘false’ security, but in flexibility and resilience. In small scale operations (which also exists in large organizations!) and customer focus, instead of upscaling and process focus.
- Doing the right things is more important than doing things right. Effectiveness is more important than efficiency. It is not either .. or, find the right balance!
- Experiment (but be aware of what can go wrong), and learn. Don’t think you can calculate everything up front, because you can’t. Allow yourself to make mistakes (within limits).
- Trust in people, collaborating and cooperating in small (‘multi-disciplinary’) teams of generalists, working on assignments they can handle (1 corridor, 1 room). Aided by specialists. People are not human resources.
- Focus management on facilitating these teams, not on checking (checking actually costs more money … but it would go too far to elaborate now). 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 organization is to achieve added value in 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. With the current tools, it appears 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 resound, perhaps some give you shivers. While working on the future of your organization, see if you can use them, they might help you look 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 have been successfully applied in quite some organizations. They might even help you!
I hope this crisis situation will be over as soon as possible, but the current signals are that we will be dealing with this for many months, possibly years. I certainly don’t want to shine a positive light on what’s happening and close my eyes for the drama which is unfolding because of Covid-19.
My idea was to take you through some ideas that may help you in the near future. When your organization 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. A number of organizations currently have no other options, hopefully they will survive. If you are in such a situation, hopefully this blog will give you 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 not always easy to use in your situation. So: start experimenting, learn, start doing. Make your own mistakes, avoid those mistakes others have already made. And, please, do not “implement”, grown and learn, find out what works in your situation.
I wish health, wisdom, strength and resilience for everyone. And I hope you will have respect, consideration and attention for those who need it most now, who cannot keep up.
Peter Coesmans guides and helps organizations going through significant, sustainable changes. He is director international for the Agile Business Consortium.
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