“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”
— Stanford economist Paul Romer

Yesterday afternoon, I logged into what must be my 150th Zoom conference. What was once an occasional event has turned into a daily barrage of virtual backgrounds and unknowingly muted speakers.

Fortunately, it seems we are all getting better at this new reality.

Well, maybe not all of us. There is a regular participant in one of my standing group calls who, despite having been on many of these over the past several weeks, has not progressed in his ability to use the technology. For the duration of every call, he appears mostly offscreen and from far below, giving the rest of us either a view up his nose or of his ceiling (sometimes both).

Technological ineptitude? Maybe. But it struck me that perhaps he just has a certain expectation regarding the pandemic’s longevity.
In other words, if you believe that we will be in this situation to some significant degree for the next 18-24 months, then it is worth learning how to use Zoom effectively. If, on the other hand, you view COVID-19 as just a brief inconvenience, why bother?

Only time will tell which perspective is correct. But if you think, as I do, that it’s the former, it’s worth taking steps to position yourself and your organization as well as possible — now and for whenever “normal” returns.

Three suggestions in that regard…

#1. Find the Opportunities.

During a single week in March, universities across the country moved all their classes online. At the same time, office workers stopped commuting and began working from home. Initially, there were no format changes — it was the same approach, schedule and routines, moved to Zoom.

That’s logical. But it wasn’t innovation. It was a band-aid; a frantic, crisis-based attempt to patch a leak. Early on, for students, teachers and workers, the new experience was worse in nearly every way.

Soon, though, people started devising ways to make the online experience not just acceptable, but better than what existed in our former, offline world.

For example, one of my clients replaced its bi-weekly Monday morning meeting with much more frequent (and much shorter) daily check-in calls. These have already proven to be more effective and they plan to stick to this approach going forward.

Another client, one that had a major conference planned for April in Florida, shifted everything online. As a result, they had participation from members who had never attended the annual in-person events.

Further, and thanks to some innovative approaches to session management, they had much more interaction and engagement than ever before. Their responsiveness has significantly strengthened relationships among members and they, too, intend to retain some of these elements post-pandemic.

The point is, the opportunity is not to simply try and recreate what worked before until the world returns to normal. It’s a time to rethink things entirely and design a better, future-oriented approach.

#2. Support the Transition.

As the move online has occurred, different companies — of all types and sizes — have responded in vastly different ways.

Some have simply set up Zoom accounts and invited their employees to have at it. Others have done much more, including offering guidance on lighting, audio, camera positioning and wardrobe; supporting their teams in upgrading home office and network equipment; and providing training on how best to communicate effectively in a virtual world.

Keep in mind as well that there is much more going on here than just technology — the shift to online communication represents a potential reshuffling of the “personality deck” within your organization. For example, those who are less likely to speak up in an in-person meeting may find their voice through Zoom chat. On the other hand, the extroverts who always speak first in meetings may find the virtual world to be a less natural forum.

Whatever the changes that result from our current upheaval, it behooves your organization to help staff adjust as smoothly and quickly as possible. If, instead, you simply “wait to see what happens” as the rest of the world continues to figure things out, you risk looking unprofessional, foolish or, worst case, missing out on important opportunities.

#3. Find Ways to Fail.

Clearly, the pandemic is not something anyone would wish for (facemask and plexiglass manufacturers being the notable exceptions).

But it does provide cover.

Cover to try new things, implement long-needed changes and take risks that might otherwise feel too precarious. After all, while in normal times it may be prudent to move slowly and incrementally, with a crisis at hand, it is clear to everyone that hard decisions must be made and quickly, with an implicit understanding that nothing is certain.

For example, this may be the ideal time to cut back on or eliminate non-core programs that are not directly connected to your organization’s real reason for being. In times of crisis, these types of difficult, resource-allocation decisions may become possible.

Or maybe you have conferences, events or galas that were planned for the summer or early fall and that you are considering cancelling entirely. Your stakeholders know that you have to make quick changes with little or no experience to go by — now is your opportunity to experiment with bold new approaches.

Overall, the downside of failure is as low as it will ever be. If you are prepared to react and adjust quickly, the chance to learn is great. Sitting things out may mean missing an opportunity to stretch that may never come again.

Final Thoughts

Nobody knows what’s going to happen. That’s what makes these times both frightening and filled with opportunity.

As Professor Jody Greene at the University of California, Santa Cruz writes in her article, Imagining the Post-Pandemic University:

“Suddenly forgotten in all the outcry about how much students miss in-person classes and how hard it is to engage them remotely are the number of students who did not show up to in-person lectures and the percentage who were asleep, online shopping, or looking at their phones when they did.”

Maybe, instead of asking when things will return to normal, a more strategic question is, “How do we innovate in a way that makes the future even better than the past?”

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