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Covid-19 & Leaning into the Future

Updated: Mar 19, 2020

The reality is this is the new normal. Whether we are dealing with rapid climate change or mysterious viruses that can pop up out of nowhere, there is only one answer to deal with both. We need to admit that change is coming - and at faster rates than ever.

The question is - how can we adapt and not just survive? The answer is we need to learn how to learn, act, reflect, repeat; faster than ever. The enemy of the future is perfection.

The reality of the future is more than ever, we need to be able to move quickly to adjust to ever-changing circumstances; whether we're talking business, community or government. We also need to figure out ways to collaborate more in this continuous improvement process. Covid-19 is really just a canary warning us we need to move even more quickly to learn how to work together more effectively, across all sorts of silos, and literally to NOT do so means death. Of individuals, communities, even the planet.

Some learnings from a company called Cofomo could be very helpful. This 15-person, two-client shop has grown to include more than 2,000 employees and 200 large-business clients, as well as additional offices in Quebec City and Ottawa, and project-based satellites in Chicago and Melbourne. Currently, Cofomo sits at the intersection of two sweeping trends—digital transformation and the demand for skilled labour—and has built up two main pillars: talent management, and strategy and technology.

On one hand, the company provides businesses with staff to implement digital transformation by developing a plan for talent acquisition, recruiting candidates and implementing workforce management systems, for example. On the other, Cofomo employees help their clients achieve new objectives through the leveraging of technological innovation. That can include evaluating new technologies to gauge their relevance, project management or establishing a cybersecurity strategy.

While communication and coordination are critical, some level of agency to respond to unique, evolving local conditions is also very important.

So how is this accomplished at Cofomo? Effective top-down communication within Cofomo has always been a priority, but—in a bid to guarantee synchronicity—so has a bottom-up approach. “Everyone is invested with responsibility,” says Cofomo. “Rather than have departments, we have innovation groups. We view each employee and each group as their own small business with their own vision, their own objectives. Our company DNA is anchored in the principle that we don’t control our employees—as long as they have a well-thought-out plan, they have carte blanche to see it through.”

This is not just something that's important for when we are in crisis. In fact, that's really too late. To prepare for the future, we need to be practicing and embedding these new ways of working in all our organizations well in advance of various crises.

Something that could be helpful is new thinking around Self Determination Theory. Self-determination theory (SDT) is about how teams can work together using a variety of principles related to: Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness.

For some these principles might be familiar in Scrum or Agile models of working related to software development, but they are spreading across various sectors.

Autonomy, which is one of the principles I think is most important, believes in the concepts of self-organization and cross-functionality. What does this mean? Is it just a free for all? No.

For teams to function, they still need a clear idea of what their goals or purpose are - but also what they SHOULD NOT do in pursuit of the goals outlined. In my work I often refer to this as the principle of Minimum Specifications.

The idea of this is by being very clear about goals, but also worries or concerns related to HOW teams go about accomplishing those goals, everyone can be as creative and innovative as possible. It's the difference between being prescriptive, and not. When we tell someone exactly how to do something, they tend to do exactly what we tell them.

This is fine for very precise situations, but when things are chaotic, ambiguous and changing all the time - then being prescriptive and top-down is not the best way to foster the kind of experimentation, prototyping and continuous improvement processes that are really needed. Again, remembering communication and coordination are critical for all of this.

Cross-functionality is also about people being able to work across silos. Teams need to be highly adaptive in emergent situations that are constantly changing, and the work of the team needs to be able to progress regardless of the availability of various individual members of the team.

Competence means that the work that we do is important and has purpose. Simon Sinek talks about the need for a Just Cause as something that will motivate people well beyond the idea of a pay check. A Just Cause is a vision of the future that we may never be able to accomplish, but it is so motivating that people will sacrifice to achieve it. They know their work is about making a difference in some way that will benefit others, and make our world a better place.

Relatedness is about people having meaningful relationships with others. By making courage, focus, commitment, respect, openness an essential part of everyday work, team members are able to fashion ways of working that genuinely foster trust, engagement and psychological safety that encourages and supports people to share and debate ideas to enable the team to create solutions to problems, and new ways of doing things that go beyond anything any one team member could do on their own.

Another principle I think is important is the idea of identifying Individual Needs. This is about knowing what each team member needs to be able to be their best self. What kind of support they might need, and what they want to get out of a particular experience to be able to bring their best selves to the work of the team.

I also think understanding how Learning works can be very helpful. Learning is how we DO continuous improvement. We have an idea - something picked up from, or inspired by, something we're exposed to. Then we might be exposed to other ideas - through other people, travel, books, film, stories... all sorts of things. The more different the idea is from what we already know, the bigger the schism in our understanding of the world - but also the bigger the opportunity to make new connections and develop new ideas.

A key part of maximizing learning though is creating an environment where people feel safe to explore different ideas, and where conflict is handled in a healthy, constructive way.

The other thing that's critical to all of the principles I've mentioned is they don't come easy. We need to practice them. This is where the idea of 'seeing the future and adapting now' is so critical.

Necessity is often the mother of invention. We learned a lot from Ebola, SARS and other epidemics. We know more will be coming as we move forward with an evermore integrated and fast-moving global way of being. Yes, Covid-19 will slow us down. There is still so much uncertainty. We have no idea when we will get on top of this particular challenge. We just know this is a time to pull together and do the best we can for each other.

It is also an opportunity for us all to reflect on how we cam improve ways of working together to deal with challenges; of which we know there will be many more. Climate change, and social justice and equity are still major ones that we must address.

So, how do we do this? We need to learn, act, reflect, repeat - and share. We need to find ways to share stories of success and learning, and in a way that is efficient and effective without overloading people. We need to find ways to curate what we're learning together, and to build on it.

We also need to remember learning how to work as a team does not happen overnight. We need to practice, practice, practice - and we need to pull together. This means we need to listen to each other, build trust with each other and believe that we can do better - together.


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