The pandemic has forced companies and organizations of all sizes (as well as individuals and families) to explore how they have been affected, what the unfolding shifts will mean for their futures and how they can adapt to the ongoing changes.
Various terms have been used to describe the shifts and changes that have begun to emerge — the new normal, the next normal, uncertain times, turbulent times, radical uncertainty and the great reset, to name a few. There is undoubtedly a common perception that whatever the future brings, companies and organizations will not be going back to the old normal. Whether in small or large ways, institutions will not be returning to the way things used to be.
The premise of this article is that senior leaders must recognize that the new normal will vary widely from one company to the next, from within and across different sectors, and between public and private entities. It would be a mistake for leaders to define the new normal in only systemic or macroeconomic terms.
In effect, there will not be the new normal but a multitude of new normals reflecting the specific environment in which individual companies and organizations operate and the way they respond to emerging challenges. And for many, if not most organizations, the new normal will be reached via a slow, incremental path as the economic, social and public health variables and implications of the structural changes created by COVID-19 continue to unfold.
The question for executive leadership is therefore to determine what their organization’s new normal may look like, how to adapt to meet that new operating environment and the steps that can be taken to increase resilience.
These new normals will lay on a wide spectrum of possibilities: on the one hand, heavily affected industries such as commercial real estate, leasing and rental businesses, event planning and management, health care, and travel and tourism; on the other hand, those industries that have witnessed a surge in demand, such as cloud-based software and storage, virtual entertainment and manufacture of medical supplies and personal protective gear.
The coronavirus hiatus
Many of the macroeconomic forecasts by the Federal Reserve and other sources have estimated that the economy could recover by 2021, based on various assumptions that are subject to change and refinement. Even a 2021 projection will entail continued hardship and belt-tightening for hundreds of thousands of companies, large and small.
But the recovery times for different sectors may not be correlated with the initial impact of the coronavirus across the entire economy. An analysis by McKinsey in July estimated the recovery times for different sectors could extend as far out as 2025. This suggests that the new normal may be a long time in coming for some sectors and that a prolonged period of transition and uncertainty may be in the offing.
Organizations will need to give careful consideration to the potential length of the hiatus, how that affects revenue and operations, and the intermediate steps necessary before the outlines of their new normal begin to appear.
Building organizational resilience for the new normal
While there is no single description of what the new normal will be for individual companies, a simple taxonomy can provide an organizing construct for how senior managers can assess their organization’s strengths and vulnerabilities as they look to define their emerging new normal and to build the resiliency needed. The self-assessment process is based on a critical examination of both the external business ecosystem in which the company operates and identifying internal business function vulnerabilities that could be affected by external factors.
The business ecosystem is those factors that could possibly destabilize business operations, such as changing laws and regulations, technology shifts and threats, changing customer preferences or competitors introducing new products or services. It could also include disruptions caused by “black swan” events such as financial market or environmental disruptions, social-political disturbances or even another pandemic.
For each potential disruption, the self-assessment process helps organizations rank the probability of the disruptive event occurring, the severity of the impact of the disruption on the particular organization and the perceived current level of preparedness to mitigate the impact.
For the various internal business functions, the assessment would seek to rate or rank the organization’s resiliency in terms of:
- The ability of the organization to adapt in the event of a disruption
- The severity of the impact if uncorrected
- The level of preparedness to mitigate the impact
For internal leadership functions, the assessment might rank such key leadership functions as maintaining and adapting business strategy and vision, protecting fiduciary integrity of the company, ensuring day-to-day business functions, and maintaining communications and feedback with employees, customers and partners.
The executive leadership function also includes setting and maintaining the values, customs and standards by which a company operates — these should remain constant even in uncertain times.
In terms of internal business operations, the assessment could examine such functions as product manufacturing processes, customer support services, supply chain vulnerability, new product development, and ensuring workplace and workforce quality.
Turning to sales and marketing functions, the assessment might examine such functions as agility to pivot sales and marketing strategies, ensuring continued effectiveness of customer relationship management functions, ability to continue market research and business intelligence, and capability to maintain or adapt partner/channel sales functions.
With regard to internal finance functions, the assessment could rank such core activities as ability to closely monitor revenue streams and model financial projections, ensure viable cost-structure safeguards and oversee effective cash-flow management.
In short, this simplified and generic framework is representative of how a company might go about undertaking a resiliency assessment. Other methodologies are possible. Certainly, any resiliency assessment should include a representative cross-section of senior- and mid-level managers — not just C-suite executives – in order to fully capture the views and perceptions of employees across the organization.
Needless to say, the assessment is only the first step in improving a company’s resiliency, which must be followed by a plan of action to improve or correct any shortcomings discovered so as to successfully transition to the new normal.
Thomas Stephens, Ph.D., is the founder and managing director of the Prescient360 Group, a professional services firm providing support to companies and nonprofit organizations in the areas of strategic planning, organizational resilience, change management and program design.