“The world has moved on, we say… we’ve always said. But it’s moving on faster now. Something has happened to time.”
–Stephen King, The Gunslinger
When you really stop and think about it, the world before had begun to sink into a state of innovative torpor. Technology has changed, sure, but our approach to it and how we use it to improve our day to day lives has actually changed very little in the last decade.
Our phones got a few more bells and whistles, people changed social media platforms, and Alexa got accused of listening in on our private conversations. Some companies allowed some people to work from home (at least some of the time), but most of us got up and made the morning commute into the office. Brick and mortars struggled to remain relevant to the next generation of customers and my parents still couldn’t order anything from Amazon without me walking them through it. Business as usual.
We got comfortable. In that comfort, our focus had begun to shift away from innovation and instead took aim at improving what we already had. People stopped thinking about disruption. Slower moving giants caught up and began to reclaim the markets where they had once reigned. The road ahead, while not always easy, was at least predictable. We understood where we were and where we were headed.
Then COVID-19 happened and suddenly there was no road. No turn signals, no safety lanes. Business as usual, or at least as we knew it, was just done. Likely forever.
In the weeks and months since, most of are still struggling to understand the right way to wear a mask—or where to buy one in the first place. Some of us are angry. Nearly all of us are scared, even if we won’t say so.
We’ve seen grocery store shelves picked clean overnight. Toilet paper and hand sanitizer have apparently fled the scene. Everyday people suddenly know that PPE stands for Personal Protection Equipment, or that the best masks to buy to block virus transmission are rated N95.
Brick and mortar operations are in the midst of some truly dark days. Meanwhile, online retailers and those fortunate few who have managed to adapt quickly continue to struggle with unprecedented demand in a world where people just can’t work together like they used to.
In fact, some of us stopped going to work. Others stopped having work to go to. Far too many of us have died.
The world has moved on and things can never truly be the same.
The Action Reaction
Needs must, necessity compels. Humanity is hard-wired to act when the consequences of inaction become overwhelming, when the act of doing nothing has a higher price tag than the risk you’re about to take. For a lot of businesses, that’s today.
Waiting for this to all blow over is short-sighted at best. Dr. Anthony Fauci, leader of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, recently speculated that we’ll likely see a second wave of COVID-19 in Q3 of this year. Whether or not Fauci’s prediction actually comes to pass, one thing is certain. This whole thing is going to leave a mark. People’s lives have changed. Society has changed. Our lens has changed, and we really don’t look at things the same way anymore. Not as people and, if we’re wise, not as business leaders.
The companies that will come out the other side of this thing the strongest are those that are able to adapt to our new world’s evolving needs, those that let go of the concept of business as usual and start thinking about what the landscape will look like when all the dust settles.
Our time of comfortable inertia is over. We can either choose to mourn it or embrace the fact that moving forward is the only way we’re likely to survive.
They say that when one door closes another one opens. If that’s true, then the near future could be imagined as a series of rapidly opening doors and windows, some easier to see and find than others, many of which will disappear nearly as quickly as they came.
As the world re-opens for business, there’s a whole lot of us who are more than ready to get back out there. We’re willing, perhaps now more than at any other point in recent history, to turn off our laptops and TVs. To put down our phones and look around a bit. To breathe fresh air.
Online shopping has lost its appeal because we’ve waited, in some cases, weeks or months for our orders to arrive. We miss our friends and our trips to Walmart. Our hair hasn’t been cut in what feels like years. We want to see a movie. We want to feel safe going out again. We want to restart our lives.
Change is painful, and these last few months are just the beginning. But where there is great change, there is also great opportunity. A chance to (re)emerge as thought leaders, innovators and trusted friends.
Sideways Is The New Forward
Companies that may have begun planning their end can find new life here, if they seize the day. But we have to be willing to shake things up. We have to be open to change. We have to be able to lead even when the road isn’t so clear anymore. After all, to disrupt a market we first have to disrupt how we think about it and ourselves.
If you are not already doing so, take a moment to forget everything that you think you know about your business and its place in the world. Replace all that useless junk with a clear picture of what tomorrow looks like. What next week looks like—or next year. Let that image really sink in.
Put yourself in the shoes of your customers as they begin to navigate that new reality. What do they want? What do they need? What can you do with the resources you have on hand or readily available to deliver solutions that will define your company for generations?
Maybe you’ll create a model that makes shopping in brick and mortar stores attractive again. Maybe you’ll solve the telemedicine/privacy riddle, allowing doctors to connect personally with their patients without undue risk to anyone’s health. Maybe you’ll figure out how to keep your restaurant or barber shop from closing its doors—or invent something that makes personal protection easier and more reliable for people all over the world.
The common theme in all of these scenarios is a willingness to look beyond outdated models and perceptions and apply a little sideways thinking to the problems of today.
Good luck and Godspeed.