We’re about a year out from the beginning of the pandemic. Moreover, we see the light at the end of the tunnel when everybody is vaccinated, and life can go back to the pre pandemic times. But now that we have a little bit of perspective, it’s a great time to start thinking about the lessons that we’ve learned from this experience? What are the insights we’ve had that will make us better able to handle crises in the future; that will give us better tools for the present moment; whether for our individual lives, our organizations, our families, and whatever else is important to us?
I asked the question in a few places. In response, people on twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and within the Beyond Better Online community have all issued their own thoughts. I’ve been collecting and curating what I’ve heard –as well as including my own thoughts.
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The over-arching theme is the urgency of creating resiliency. So, what exactly is resiliency? Do you remember Weebles™? The slogan was “Weebles Wobble But They Don’t Fall Down.”
Most people were knocked about by the pandemic and all the changes that came with it. Whether working remotely or home-schooling while holding Zoom meetings. Resiliency means that in the face of an insurmountable obstacle we don’t fall down. We may be forced to make a U-turn, or forced off our road, but we find our way. The question we all had to ask ourselves was should we just fold? Are we defeated? Or do we bounce back, regroup, and continue forward in a different direction? Resilience.
But that is only resilience as metaphor. What is resilience in practice?
My sense is that we tend to think of it as a strength of character– an internal fortitude that carries us forward. That may be a small part of it. But the resiliency we needed in this complicated world of 2021 is more than just our internal fortitude.
Resilience emerges more in the conditions we cause and the characteristics we create in our organizations. It also involves embracing the highly visible uncertainty. What actions and conditions support us when the future is so unknown and potentially fraught with obstacles?
Maybe you had a piggy bank or your own saving account when you were just 10 years old. Interestingly, some of the learnings from the pandemic harken back to things that our parents and teachers told us as children. For one, save money.
Clearly, there are a lot of people in this country and the world for whom that is just simply impossible. They live week to week.
But for those who can, recent events (and basic wisdom) suggest we save money. Over the course of the last year, one salient theme has been the need for reserves. In fact, oddly, Americans have begun to save more money than they have in decades. Maybe the lack of restaurants and bars helped?
Even as we emerge again, going out and traveling, we may want to keep the lesson of saving money in mind. Perhaps we should internalize the reality that the future is always uncertain. The upshot is that we would forego things now for the later security.
Having reserves is a component of resiliency.
Organizations –large and small—did well if they were agile. They could alter their direction or, to use what’s now become a kind of buzzword, pivot. But, if you’re going to pivot to some new strategy, it’s a good idea to know what direction you’re going now, and which way to turn. If you’re facing north, do you go south, east, or straight ahead? Making that decision brings us to our next lesson.
When organizations create a strategy –if they create a strategy (big IF) –they base it on a set of assumptions. Although the nature of assumptions is to be. Once those assumptions become embedded in our thinking, they lead us to a specific future scenario. In fact, we often have the scenario in mind without even distinguishing what assumptions have led to it. We craft our strategy with the future we expect it mind.
The pandemic has been an extreme example of how reality can dash our expectations. With hindsight it would have been useful to have a back-up plan. That back-up plan (let’s call it Plan B) imagines that our assumptions about the future are wrong. Once we alter our assumptions, we are in a perfect position to craft a new strategy. Plan B.
With Plan B, your organization can shift and change to enact the back-up plan – assuming you have the agility to do so. Even if the reality differs from the Plan B assumptions, having the flexibility to shift directions is essential.
Amid sudden shifts in reality, we face our own fallibility. We were wrong. Unforeseen, major changes cannot do other than humble us. In response to that we have choices in how we respond: We can admit defeat and simply crumble; we can rail against the universe and complain about the unfairness of it all, wasting precious time and resources; or, we can admit we have been wrong and change direction based on new facts. Only one of them leads to effective action. Doing that takes humility. Humility is the only successful posture when the rug has been pulled out from under our feet. We have lost control –albeit of things we never controlled. But, feeling like we have no control over the circumstances, or even of our own role in them, is humbling.
To gauge the new reality and how well we are responding, we need information. We often see things as we would like them to be rather than how they are. To adjust for that we need data. It’s become painfully obvious that we change our perceptions, and therefore our actions, based on what data we have.
That is as true for our personal lives as it is for our businesses. The data we get can give us feedback about the success of our revised strategies.
Data can be reliable and unreliable – well-designed or skewed to deceive. Week to week our understanding of the number of infections, the danger of infection, the ways we could protect ourselves –they have all varied. The variation sometimes came from evolving science, and sometimes from manipulation of what the data were measuring. So, the caveat to having data is to ensure the data comes from counting the right things accurately and transparently.
Tragedy has been ever-present for over a year. Whether through the exponential numbers of reported deaths or through our own direct experience. As we mourn a friend’s death, or wait in excruciating solitude through a parent’s hospitalization, or we simply endure, feeling impotent to do anything useful –all these demand compassion.
We might be standing in a grocery store line or picking up food at a restaurant, but as we look at each masked face, we know that anyone we see may be suffering right now: They could be in the midst of having lost a job or scrambling to keep their home; they might have lost a parent or a sibling, or they may be depressed and lonely. The main thing we could offer any of these people is our compassion. So, we need more of it. Tragedy has moved a lot closer to us.
Tragedy’s growing proximity also demands that we feel compassion for ourselves. We have all borne a crucible. The particulars of the crucible differed from person to person. But very few of us are unscathed. The most affluent and insulated among us have felt confused and frustrated. We each need to give ourselves some compassion.
Every day of this pandemic we all hoped that it would be over. We prayed for the moment we could throw away our masks and go out to a restaurant, hug our friends, kiss our moms, and reunite with our distant partners. Despite our fervent hoping, even now that hasn’t fully come to pass. But we endure and continue to confront the pandemic and its constraints. That is stamina.
Despite our wishing and hoping, this has kept on far longer than any of us thought was possible –or than we thought we could handle. Stamina. We have all confronted the frailty of our own endurance. But we have strengthened and grown the ability to endure unpleasant or painful experiences until the end.
There have been so many lessons in such a short time. While the last year has seemed endless, we have all become stronger, more resilient, and better able to deal with uncertainty. Maybe that is the ultimate upside of the pandemic!
Clearly, this is not an exhaustive list. You will think of others –and there will be many more over the next months and years. But my wish for this first draft of our lessons from 2020 is that it contributes to your own strength and fortifies your hopefulness.