Navigating Change

Building on sustainable ways to thrive in changing times being Managers, Parents and Citizens is complex, but not impossible.

We live in unprecedented times, to say the least. Almost Orwellian. Our lives in disarray: an inflated mix of uncertainty, confusion, and reservation. Seasoned with baffled toddlers and frustrated high schoolers who get to see their Parents more often than usual, yet are required to stay at home. With Schools and Daycare facilities dismissed in over a dozen countries, the Globe is forced into its largest work-from-home experiment to date!

No doubt you’ve heard all about the Coronavirus already: the disease that, a couple of days ago, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially characterized as a pandemic, and is now being listed alongside the Spanish Flu and HIV/AIDS as a notable global outbreak. This means that, the way those guys see it (and they’ve seen their fair share) the COVID-19 is more severe than a mere public health emergency of international concern. It’s a case that requires our undivided attention, our ongoing collaboration and our uncontested solidarity.

In Greece where I live, the morale (as perceived by me) is currently on the low end, although some notable cases who chose to go flood the beach bars (now officially shut-down) never fail to impress. Given how the outbreak is progressing in neighboring Italy, the statistical case for us Greeks appears equally grim. People have been crowding at cashier lines to staff their pantries with all sorts of non-perishable grocery (like frozen veggies, canned stuff, and grains) causing an unprecedented strain to super markets and supply chains. As of Saturday March 14th, all playgrounds, malls, hairdressers, amusement parks, cafeterias, theaters, gyms and restaurants are officially shut down by the government. We are asked to lay low for a while. Some even ask for a lockdown. It’s unheard. It’s shocking. It’s almost unbelievable. And it’s a huge opportunity. Wait, what?

They say tough times call for tough measures. And some have already actualized. Is it just me, or is the world lately enrolled in a crash course on themes previously untouched and comfortable forgotten in some policy-makers’ drawers? This is how radical progress in the time of the SARS-CoV-2 looks like:

  • Awareness is built around Access to Public Health, and more specifically on how personal responsibility (or lack of) is affecting both capacity and response planning of the System.
  • The World of Work is turning into a more inclusive and responsive space, through much-needed legal tweaks to the FMLA that take into account all of people’s life engagements (including the definition of an employer and an employee, paid time out for sickness as well as the co-existence of parental and caregiving activities) as well as the mainstreaming of remote work. The HR department is finally stepping out of the introvert shadows to work alongside Business Leaders to safeguard Business Continuity and preserve the Employer Brand. Businesses are receiving a cosmic message to slow down and be strategic. And yeah, that unnecessary meeting is now an email, and everyone is actually fine with that!
  • Education is being reformed to extend its reach beyond the closed doors of a classroom, by introducing popular business tools such as videoconferencing, shared repositories, online tools and collaboration platforms. Even the Greek government (to my eyes a notable lagger of Roger’s diffusion of innovation curve around public education) has introduced distance learning and remote tutoring in all levels of education, all in a week’s time!
  • Solidarity in a globalized world empowers resourcefulness: the collective insight coming together to design around people, regardless of sector specifics or precedented rivalry. In Greece we see Microsoft, Google and CISCO teaming up with the Greek government to openly offer their integrated tools for free to support public education. In Italy, we witness people singing or playing music from their balconies during lockdown, keeping their sense of belonging in their local ecosystems alive and kicking. Niche communities where members openly share tips, ideas or practices (such as Aspa Tsamadi’s “Love, Mom” in which Mothers have set up the daily #KarantinaChallenge to share home-activity ideas that help them keep their kids entertained during lockdown) thrive. The #StayHome (#ΜένουμεΣπίτι) campaign is spreading the message of social responsibility on both local and global levels (and it’s shockingly harder to debate with my Dad so that he stays at home than it is around my friends!). If all this is not revolutionary, I don’t know what is!

In the past few weeks we’ve all witnessed a lot. And we are expected to go through even more. The events are unfolding, and humanity is at the center of it all. But how cool is it when you put two and two together and, instead of becoming consumed by fear and despair over logistics, you choose the perspective that sees the opportunity in everything going on right now?

I am one of those voices who believe that our localized experience is always part of something bigger: 21st century humanity is not only combatting it’s first pandemic incident; it’s also taking a step forward in its path towards global adulthood. We needed to grow up a little. We needed to evolve as a species. Not saying a pandemic is the only (or the best) way to experience social progress, but having it on our hands right here and right now, with no visible swift way past it, surely looks like an opportunity for humanity to act as a collective: we will go though tough times no doubt, but at the same time we will learn so much, test so many fronts, question so many barriers, ditch so many taboos, and rearrange our priorities so damn much, that there’s only one way left to go after all this is cleared: Forward!

It’s a process, People. And I get mentally stimulated by how relevant the Kübler-Ross Change curve is becoming to our day-to-day perceptional and emotional roller-coaster. If you give it a good thought-through, we are all undergoing these same stages, both locally and globally:

  • The initial Shock of actually dealing with a pandemic realizing that, at the dawn of the omnipotent 4th industrial revolution, we still have vulnerabilities as a species that may be harder to spot
  • The Denial, where we treat extreme measures like school dismissals as opportunities to flood the playgrounds with kids
  • The Frustration when we recognize that there’s something actually going on that we cannot afford to ignore anymore, and we are angry at everyone we think is responsible: those who started it, those who are working to finish it at a pace we deem slow, the cashier at the super-market, others who are frustrated with us
  • The Depression of staying at home, the feeling of missing out, the self-doubt around doing the right thing, the crisis-related stress
  • The Experiment with new data and tools at hand, like new ways to do some work, and new channels to keep the kids schooled
  • The Decision to act responsibly, to follow the guidelines, to work through ways to entertain the kids, to see this as an opportunity to let go of the busy lifestyle and invest some extra quality time with the spouse during lockdown
  • And, finally, the Integration of all these newly acquired competences, experiences and options into our armory. How societies and businesses design response plans and continuity systems from now on. How humans can become more resourceful. How inclusion and a holistic viewpoint of things actually leads to more sustainable societies. How human beings learn best by doing.
The Kübler-Ross Change Curve (Leanchange.org)

Not everyone is on the same page, though, yet. That’s why you see some people panicking, while others stick to their travel and leisure plans. The human brain is quick to hop on the blame train and adopt a dismissive viewpoint of the situation and of others but, at the end of the day, such a lateral response is quite understandable. Denial is part of our brain’s hardwired survival mechanism to protect and keep us in our safety zone, and panicking is part of our brain’s fight or flight mechanism when we are stressed. At the end of the day, it’s all in our heads!

It’s exactly like Roger’s diffusion of innovation curve, where you see Innovators rushing in, and Laggards leaning out of a given innovation. We use the curve extensively when we talk business, new products and market shares, but don’t kid yourself: it’s innovation at a societal level we are having here. Eventually humanity will progress as a whole, and individual maturity will forge the pace at which collective maturity will shift. We are not there just yet, but this extreme situation is poking us to get there. Some will go faster than others, but the System will eventually move.

The diffusion of Innovation according to Rogers (Wikipedia)

We are at a tipping point in humanity where we need to get a good grip of the changing situation, and act accordingly. The luxury of time may not be on our side, but this can be a good thing too! And we can surely borrow a lot from Change Management and start swapping behaviors towards further cultivating a Growth Mindset. Here’s some ideas to get us all going:

  • Create alignment with what’s going on around you and work on your group contingency plans, instead of limiting your actions to self-interest:
    • As a Working Parent affected by school dismissal, help the kids cope with this extreme situation by creating a new normal around the house. Visual aids like a written schedule at the fridge where each day’s play, study and routine plans are laid out can help communicate what’s going on and when and ease out on the tension.
    • As a Manager, create the circumstances that ease people’s working conditions. If your team consists of remote workers, use collaboration tools and canvases to make it clear and visible to everyone what’s expected from them, when and how. Put up a virtual feedback area to capture the people’s moods. Kanban boards like Trello are awesome ways to build structure around that!
    • As a Citizen, work on your sense of individual responsibility levels and follow official guidelines. Wash your hands, stay home and don’t put yourself in situations that can potentially put you at risk.
  • Maximize Communication: Jason Little has said this best: “Use informal communication sessions to establish open and honest dialogue around the situation. Sometimes when people feel frustrated they need to be listened to. Don’t worry about having a solid plan and outcomes from those sessions. If people want to complain, let them!”
    • As a Manager, host videoconferencing or teleconferencing sessions with your team mates who are staying at home to discuss how their days going. Whether they are teleworking or simply took days off, not all people see the sunny side of staying at home, and allowing room to feel they are still part of your team and vent out helps.
    • As a Parent a daily open family circle at the living room in the afternoons right before bath time. Borrow from corporate “open coffees” and gather round with a warm beverage to discuss how the household day went. Opening up as a Parent is the best way to showcase this ability to your kids.
    • As a Citizen, do as the CDC says: “Stay in touch with others by phone or email. If you live alone and become sick during an outbreak, you may need help. If you have a chronic medical condition and live alone, ask family, friends, and health care providers to check on you during an outbreak. Stay in touch with family and friends with chronic medical conditions.”
  • Spark Motivation: Look for what motivates different people to act. After you find everyone’s mojo, do something to help others break out of the funk and find higher meaning in what’s happening.
    • As a Manager, don’t just practice what you preach, but also preach what you practice. Be nice to every single member of the team: it’s at times like this when we should resort to kindness the most. This pandemic will go, and your people will still be around. They may forget what you did (or did not) during the crisis, but they will never forget how you made them feel. Managers who fail to see this pressing need to put People First Business Second won’t be around to celebrate when this crisis is overcome.
    • As a Parent, help your kids embark in creative activities that contribute to cultivating hope rather than despair. A friend of mine sent me this amazing photo of one of her kids’ drawings. They have been drawing colorful rainbows coupled with positive messages, and sticking them to their doors and windows so that others can see! And don’t forget self-care: you cannot pour from an empty cup. There are people out there like Blessing Adesiyan (founder of Mother Honestly) and Hélène Bonhomme (founder of Fabuleuses Au Foyer) who are tirelessly devoting time and effort into the well-being of Moms, and are currently arranging open daily virtual Happy-Hour sessions to keep us pumped and going!
    • As a Citizen, work on your intention-behavior gap (i.e. the difference between what you hope to do and what you actually do). We already know from past research on health behavior that only half of us with positive intentions of enacting a healthy behavior (like washing our hands for 20 seconds) actually follow through with it. We can’t afford this during a pandemic situation, though. And Dr. Angela Duckworth (author of NYT Bestseller “Grit”) has some good suggestions on closing the intention-behavior gap, stemming from Behavioral Science:
      • Try thinking of the people in your life who will benefit if you don’t get sick. The motive to protect other people can be even more powerful than the motive to protect yourself. For Angela, it’s been helpful to think about keeping her 85-year-old mother safe, not only from the coronavirus but whatever other illnesses are circulating at this time of year.
      • Try pinpointing the primary obstacle that gets in the way of taking action, then making a plan to avoid or overcome that obstacle. If, like me, you rush through your hand washing, you might make the following plan: When I’m washing my hands, I’ll think of three good things in my life and why I’m grateful for them! Gratitude is good for the body and the soul. And positive emotions can be contagious, too.
  • Develop Capability: This crisis may not be a drill, but since every intervention introduced at any level is still experimental, it is a perfectly “safe to fail” environment.
    • As a Manager, cut people some slack and deliberately allow them time to practice their newly acquired skills. Let the teleworking environment sink in for parents before you start bitching about deadlines. Not everyone’s strong point is time-management or productivity. Not everyone can manage isolation or see change as something positive. Act as a change agent: a catalyst fostering collaboration and innovation.
    • As a Parent, manage your family’s expectations around all the new stuff entering your kids’ lives, like remote tutoring. Nobody expects electronic platforms to fully (or equally) compensate for the classroom experience or for all levels of education, but it’s still better than nothing. Teachers and Professors are also brought in to this conundrum with little to no experience in customizing their tutoring style to match different channels, audiences, media. Everybody is learning how to cope, including yourself!
    • As a Citizen, work on your Solidarity: your awareness of shared interests, objectives, standards, and sympathies in creating a psychological sense of unity of groups. There are ties in our society that bind us together, in ways that strongly resemble the Butterfly Effect. As Eliza Barcley nicely put it, “there’s a long history of “spillover” events, where an emerging disease jumps from wildlife to humans, turning into a pandemic. And scientists say we should expect them with more travel, trade, connectivity, urbanization, climate change, and ecological destruction, if we don’t stop the drivers”. You are the driver, by the way.
  • Share Knowledge: Get people together to share their stories. Encourage them to learn from each other.
    • As a Manager, host a virtual Work Expo and let teams showcase stories that explain what new stuff they are doing and why they are doing them. How they have been coping. What productivity tricks have worked for them. What hasn’t.
    • As a Parent, link with others who are going through the same phase as you are, and open-up. There are online groups and forums, discussion areas and knowledge repositories all over the place. Join one that resonates to your unique state of mind and contribute. Show up to give, and the collective insight you shall receive in return will undoubtedly compensate for the momentary vulnerability you may experience when you open up for the first time to a group of like-minded individuals who are struggling with the same themes as you are.
    • As a Citizen, create a messaging group with your close neighbors. It doesn’t matter which platform, just make sure you have ways to be in touch with your immediate environment. Share your status, important info, tips, and ask for help as needed. Isolating ourselves physically is one thing. Closing down our interaction channels is something else. And it’s far more dangerous than any given pandemic.
Colorful rainbow stuck up a household door in Milan, courtesy of my good expat friend Katerina

We are violently thrown into unprecedented times, constantly bombarded by new alarming information, with everyone around expecting us to instantly cope. It’s not realistic to think there’s a switch to make all this go away. It’s not realistic to limit ourselves to doomsday either. What is, indeed, realistic, is to chose an infinite mindset and see this whole charade as an actual opportunity in our hands.

An opportunity to take advantage of the mess to grow into a better version of ourselves. We don’t even need to control it to progress in it. We just need to trust the imminent change. Its not chaos; it’s a process. And we are all going to be alright in the end!


Featured Photo: Pixabay (Pexels)

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