It’s hard to believe just how different the world became over the past year, from wearing masks in public places to working from home to self-isolation. No doubt 2021 will bring more change.
But what’s most remarkable has been our ability to accept and adapt to these changes. Viewed from that perspective, COVID-19 has created a larger phenomenon: a lowering of our resistance to change.
Change Before COVID-19
Corporations and change haven’t historically been close friends. Most businesses change only when they have to — and even then, those changes tend to be tweaks of what’s already happening.
The idea of seeking out change is foreign to most businesses. Before COVID-19, the corporate mantra might have easily been, “If it ain’t, broke don’t fix it.” But that adage depends on our definition of what isn’t broken. Too often, “what ain’t broke” translates to “good enough.” Maybe the strategy, the process or the system doesn’t work 100% of the time, but in our fast-paced world, good enough is … well … good enough.
You can’t blame business leaders for this approach. After all, when a leader is inundated with challenges, relooking at something that’s doing its job most of the time feels more than decadent; it feels like wasting time.
And Then, There Was COVID-19
In its Sept. 20, 2020, working paper, “COVID-19 and SME Failures,” the International Monetary Fund estimates that the failure rate of small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) under COVID-19 increased by nearly 9%. That failure rate is catastrophic on more than a business level: The impact in terms of jobs lost, revenue decline and business shutdown has been tragic.
For businesses that did survive, COVID-19 forced them to change — change their product lines, their supply lines, their personnel and their working practices across the board. Those changes fueled different ways of working.
Take Hong Kong’s Huanxi Media: In the middle of movie theater closures and ticket refunds, Huanxi turned to ByteDance (of TikTok fame) to release its movies on its platform. That willingness to change netted Huanxi Media nearly $91 million in cash and caused a surge in its stock price — all because COVID-19 lessened its leaders’ resistance to change.
All businesses who have survived the pandemic will have a similar story, and, as we look ahead to 2021, it’s a legacy we can build on. In a post-pandemic world, what if the lesson of COVID-19 is to hold a continuous improvement mindset?
This kind of mindset seeks out possible challenges before they happen and looks to minimize their impact on the organization. In other words, a continuous improvement mindset doesn’t wait for challenges; it looks for better ways of doing things in the absence of an imposed reason to change.
As we begin to venture into a post COVID-19 world, a continuous improvement mindset will be the kindest gift we can give ourselves. But how do we create that mindset?
Keeping a Continuous Improvement Mindset
The first step in answering that question is to understand the mindset that keeps us from having continuous improvement in the forefront of our thinking.
The pandemic lessened our resistance to change, but maybe we should have expected that it would do so. When a problem is staring us in the face, it’s easier to adapt and to overcome the challenges we face. After the pandemic, when we are no longer in that situation, two closely related mindsets — an expert mind and an inflexibility of mind — will make holding a change, or continuous improvement, mindset much more difficult.
The expert mind emerges in leaders who have been in a role or industry so long that they start to feel like they really know the industry. This year, an example was the leaders who felt sure they knew how long the pandemic would last, how the pandemic would impact their business and what to do to minimize that impact. Maybe some were right, but many were not. As a result, holding onto what they believed they knew made their businesses less able to pivot.
It’s the expert mind that hampers the ability to hold flexibility of mind — an agile mindset that sees what’s happening in the business, political, economic and, in this case, health landscape and adjust as needed. Flexibility of mind doesn’t reach back into its inventory of what to do in an emergency; instead, it sees what’s happening now and responds creatively.
Flexibility of mind is realistic. It doesn’t hold onto what could, should or used to be. Rather, it lets go of its cherished ideas, combines the facts on the ground with what the business is trying to do, and develops creative solutions to its pressing challenges.
The opposite of the expert mind is the Japanese concept of shoshin. Often translated as “beginner’s mind,” it can more accurately be translated as “beginner’s heart.” More than being willing to see things with an open or beginner’s mind, shoshin is about a willingness to be open and vulnerable: vulnerable to what we don’t know and open to doing things differently. In a post-COVID-19 world, it’s a beginner’s heart that will enable us not to repeat the working practices of the past in a world where those practices may not apply.
But knowing the old ways don’t work anymore and doing something differently aren’t the same. Flexibility of mind is all about being able to take new information — the kind a beginner’s heart offers — and use it to creatively develop new ways of working.
Let’s say we know we have a challenge with silos in our business, and that problem is exacerbated in a remote workplace. Flexibility of mind allows us to think about how we can break down silos in a post-COVID-19 world. What about creating remote teams of different departments? Or an all-hands approach where, when challenges arise, we assemble cross-functional teams to right the ship?
Change Your Mindset, Change Everything
Though COVID-19 lessened our resistance to change, keeping that openness will be a challenge of the post-COVID-19 world. We do it by combining a beginner’s heart with flexibility of mind to not only allow new ideas in but to develop new ways of doing things.
Keeping that way of thinking makes a business battle-ready for the next global challenge. See it that way, and you can see that COVID-19 gave us the single most important survival tool our organizations need.