“Transforming is the new normal“
Companies all over the world were overwhelmed by the coronavirus. Where the financial crisis was caused by companies themselves, it was impossible for them to see this crisis coming. Or could they? “Of course I didn’t know that this would happen now,” says Rogier Offerhaus of strategic consultancy firm People Change, “but another crisis was inevitable. The fact that companies don’t take that into account is, to say the least, very remarkable.”
One speaks of a unique crisis, the other of the new normal. Rogier Offerhaus has little to do with both. The coronary pandemic is not the first crisis and certainly not the last. The crisis is therefore by no means unique, and the fact that the world will never be the same as before does not mean that we will soon be in a new normal: the new world will also continue to change. In other words: change and transformation are the only constant.
Offerhaus has been trying to make this clear to CEOs, leaders and managers for years, and he hopes that those who didn’t listen have finally woken up a little: “We all assume that everything will continue to go up, that companies will continue to grow year after year. It’s in our heads that that’s normal, but of course it’s not. What is happening now is normal: it’s not eternal summer, there will always be another winter, a new crisis. We help companies that understand that the new is normal – companies that want to be an anti-fragile organization that is good at transforming”.
However, many companies seem to be burying their heads in the sand. “Booking.com has been paying huge profits to shareholders for years and is now holding hands with the government because it has not built up a single buffer for a crisis,” Offerhaus says. “The government is putting 20 billion into the economy, and another 13 and then maybe another 10, together more than 40 billion euros! And then let’s hope it will turn out the way it was. Instead of just trying to defuse this one crisis, we need to learn how to deal much better with viruses and crises. How to see a crisis as an opportunity for transformation.”
Out of the air
To do this, companies must thoroughly change their way of thinking. “We are programmed only to be productive,” Offerhaus says. “If things go well, money has to be made all the time. There is no time left for personal or professional training, transformation, reflection, awareness or thinking about the future”.
As an example, he points to aviation: “There are now 20,000 people sitting at home on the couch. They have all the time they need to think about what the next step in their development could be, to work on themselves. The CEO and all managers now have a great opportunity and all the time they need, together with their 20,000 colleagues, to transform their own organisation so that it becomes even better, smarter, more anti-fragile and crisis-proof. But we can’t do that now: ‘We don’t have any turnover now and we can’t make any costs now’. And later, when work is done again, there will be money but no time, because then everyone on the plane will have to do their job. And in the end, nothing ever happens like that.”
“Because we are not used to the idea of constant change, we are now cramping on a massive scale,” Offerhaus explains. “Companies, managers and pilots are waiting for the boss to come up with a solution, while that boss now has to turn to the government for billions. While aviation is the best example of an industry that very often has to deal with crises – such as a volcano erupting in Iceland or a terrible attack on New York on 9-11 – and you can expect them to prepare for that”.
In order to be open to the possibilities and opportunities, it is necessary to think transformative: “You look at the specific knowledge and skills that a company has. How can you pull them apart and put them together in a new way? Then suddenly a completely different company emerges. Then you turn a caterpillar into a butterfly. People only find it scary, because you pull everything apart and call it into question. That’s why I prefer to do this when things are going well – it’s better to rebuild the roof when the sun is shining – but that requires real leadership from the CEO and managers”.
“We used to find a change process very exciting, now this is normal, and many companies have built up their knowledge and skills to be able to do this quickly and several times a year. The companies that are going to invest now to be able to transform their organization quickly and well are the winners of tomorrow. Transforming companies are the new normal.”
Sailing against the wind
Instead of looking at what could become something, people prefer to stick to what they have, Offerhaus explains: “We think we have control, but we don’t. This virus proves that again. I compare it to sailing. You might want to sail from Rotterdam to New York. But if the wind is the other way around, what do you do? You can sail against the wind with a lot of difficulty, but you can also see which beautiful places you can get to if you sail with the wind”.
Just as it’s not impossible to sail against the wind, you can do anything to maintain the existing. Offerhaus’ point, however, is that this is usually not wise. “You’re all going to put time, money and energy into fighting the change that will eventually happen anyway. You only have control over what you do. Therefore, put all that time, money and energy into consciously going along with the change.”
And even if a company does not survive such a change, it is not a disaster, according to Offerhaus: “We still have far too much of an idea that we should prevent this from happening with all our might, as if we were dying. The average lifespan of a company these days is fifteen to twenty years. So, it’s better to assume that it will stop at some point. And that’s not bad at all. If you’re open to it, there’s always something new. When a door closes in life, a new door always opens.”
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