On March 12, 2020 I had a lot going on. My wife and I were moving to another state, we were planning for my oldest son’s last birthday party in our old town and I was gearing up for two months of nearly constant work travel. I had heard of the virus—first in a sales session we led in February, then again on the news—but it felt tangential to my life, and certainly unimportant compared to massive shifts going on in my personal and professional life.
The world was different on March 13, 2020.
Whether this novel Coronavirus is regarded as a cause of, a culmination of or a catalyst to the disruption it has brought to our lives, it is remarkable in many ways. First, it has highlighted how interconnected we truly are—to a point that is almost impossible to disentangle. From the wildfire-like spread from a small market in Wuhan to the re-emergence in New Zealand, we can no longer act like our communities are isolated from global events. Second, it’s placed a floodlight on leadership. The reaction and interaction of our leaders at every level will be scrutinized for years to come—and no single blog could do the analysis justice. One thing that is clear, however, is that egos in a crisis are destructive. But the silver lining, and the focus of this blog, is the undeniable human ability to “pivot”—to change our outputs, structures and processes to meet the needs of a new challenge.
Pivoting is not new—it is heavily embraced in the “fail forward” tech world and it’s not a radical concept. Berkshire Hathaway manufactured textiles YouTube was a dating website. Western Union sent telegrams. And Kodak used to make cameras. All organizations can learn from this “pivot” concept to encourage sustainability for their own enterprise. Pivoting requires us to think more broadly about our world (even systems that seem to have no bearing on our own), to shed the concept that anything in our world is a “constant” and to embrace learning.
Think Broadly. With Coronavirus, the date of disruption was certainly unexpected, but for most industries, it pushed an already existing trend into hyperdrive—the digitization of the economy. In January, I led a session with rising Partners at a leading professional services firm. We did a Future Mapping exercise —where you take market forces, one of which was remote work, and imagine the short- and long-term implications, as well as potential consequences. In hindsight, their suggestions were eerily accurate. Less office space, less commuting, less commerce being done in city centers—and more social unrest in those spaces as a result.
Change is Inevitable. Our world is always changing and has been so since the beginning of time. Yet many of us resist change unless it becomes an inevitable – this is often driven by overvaluing short-term success and the status quo. If you take the example of Blockbuster Video, you’ll remember an organization that by 1988, just three years after the first store opened, was America’s number one video chain, with over 400 stores nationwide – and they grew rapidly from there.
In 1997, Reed Hastings founded Netflix, a DVD-by-mail rental service, at the time, in part after being frustrated with a $40 late fee from Blockbuster. Hastings eventually tried to sell his company to Blockbuster in 2000, only to be laughed out of the meeting. Four years later, Blockbuster then put out a half-hearted attempt to catch up, until it couldn’t.
The key to their downfall, like many of their peers in the No Longer Relevant Hall of Fame, is that they could not adapt—or even conceive that they would need to—at the critical time.
Embrace Learning. Carol Dweck’s research into growth and fixed mindsets are rightfully exciting, but we cannot forget that Alvin Toffler said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.” It is time to shed our longing for the old office environment—it is forever changed. We need to explore the challenges this new paradigm brings as some of us do return full-time to the workplace, while the word “workplace” is completely re-defined for others. Workers need to become enthusiastic students of digital connection. Part of being students will involve participating in learning and development events.
Learning and development companies are attempting to understand the broad impact this changing environment will have on the way organizations develop employees. Initially, some learning companies took their in-person content and simply moved it into a virtual platform without changing the design or the approach to delivery. This approach is sometimes called “lift and shift.” The focus with “lift and shift” is getting content out, versus looking at transfer of knowledge from the learner’s perspective. Other learning companies expanded their off-the-shelf learning libraries. It is hubris that continues to lead some training companies to believe that their model is the answer, context is less relevant – and therefore modality is minimized.
At JMReid Group, we pivoted. Like many others, we had a footprint in the digital space—though not a large one. Still, we spent time, money and resources to understand the medium and improve our virtual deliveries. We did it from the outside in. Instead of asking, “How can we digitize our programs?”, we asked, “What does great learning look like in a digital environment?” That’s why we don’t do eight-hour virtual programs—or even four-hour programs. It simply does not benefit the learner. Our “screen attention span” is 90 to 120 minutes—the length of a well-edited movie.
We scrutinized our use of tools, interactivity and designs to understand how they would need to be different behind a screen. We mix it up without overcomplicating it. We invite learners to engage without excluding “tech tourists.” Most of all, we bring the same JMReid Group love of engagement and discussion to the digital world. We have been intentional in our investment in the future.
Four years ago, when we started our virtual design and delivery work, it seemed like a far-away eventuality that may or may not pay off. Now it is indispensable to our participants and to our clients.