“So I’ll continue to continue to pretend
My life will never end
And flowers never bend with the rainfall”

— Simon & Garfunkel – Flowers Never Bend with The Rainfall

“Think of the life you have lived until now as over and, as a dead man, see what’s left as a bonus and live it according to Nature. Love the hand that fate deals you and play it as your own, for what could be more fitting?”

— Marcus Aurelius

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”

— Robert Frost

“Our body is a machine for living. It is organized for that, it is its nature. Let life go on in it unhindered and let it defend itself.”

— Leo Tolstoy

“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

— Reinhold Niebuhr

You may have noticed that things – almost all things, actually – have changed greatly over the past two years. Despite regular reassurances that we will soon go “back to normal”, such hopes have been repeatedly dashed. As my last post observed, there is no longer any “normal” to go back to. What remains is continuous change as our new normal.

Life requires some degree of stability to continue, yes? How can you deal with – that is, live – in a world of non-stop change? Well, it turns out that humanity has been doing just this for eons – forever, or longer.

Look at history – even just since 1900. When have things been stable and “normal” in some sense? We have had big wars, little wars, depressions, uprisings, disease, earthquakes, tsunamis, and similar major inconveniences that tend to mess severely with our aspirations toward normality. It seems in fact that the only “normal” we have is continuous change itself.

What’s different today is the magnitude and scope of “normal” changes

Our world is changing at a rate and scope rarely if ever experienced before. Technology is driving many of these changes as we attempt to cope with whatever may be going on in our own world. It is driving fundamental, permanent, and unfamiliar changes.

Whereas in past the change impacts were somewhat localized so that those beyond the current impact zone could continue life more or less as before, today’s impacts are global. Life surely goes on for the majority but now life is filled with major change for virtually all.

This is in fact an entirely new world.

What worked in past is rapidly becoming ineffective or even counterproductive. People, though amazingly creative and adaptable for the most part, are being stretched beyond their limits on a regular basis.

WebMD recently offered an overview of how COVID and its consequences are affecting our mental health: “Poll Shows Worsening Impact of COVID on Mental Health”:

“May 4, 2021 – Americans worry and anxiety about COVID-19 is not getting better, a new poll shows, while parents remain concerned about the mental health of their children. The national poll from the American Psychiatric Association shows more people reporting mental health effects from the pandemic this year than last. Although the overall level of anxiety has decreased from last year’s APA poll, “the degree to which anxiety still reigns is concerning,” APA President Jeffrey Geller, MD, told Medscape.”

“The results of the latest poll were presented at the American Psychiatric Association 2021 Annual Meeting and based on an online survey conducted March 26 to April 5 among a sample of 1000 adults age 18 years or older. Serious Mental Health Hit: In the new poll, about 4 in 10 Americans (41%) report they are more anxious than last year, down from just over 60%. Young adults age 18-29 (49%) and Hispanic/Latinos (50%) are more likely to report being more anxious now than a year ago. Those 65 or older (30%) are less apt to say they feel more anxious than last year. The results show that Americans are more anxious about family and loved ones getting COVID-19 (64%) than about catching the virus themselves (49%).”

There are so many other articles out there telling pretty much the same story. This is not normal in any respect.

So what can we do about it, if anything?

Life goes on – continues to continue

“You can say ‘Life goes on’ after mentioning something very sad to indicate that, although people are very upset or affected by it, they have to carry on living normally.” — Collins English Dictionary

People are highly adaptable and resilient. History is full of catastrophes and similar inconveniences that routinely mess up their “normal” lives. Yet, people are still here. How is this possible?

Maybe not the same people are still here but at least the survivors of whatever just happened or is happening are here. There always seems to be survivors, for whom life must go on. Things may be very different but survivors, well, must continue to survive, despite the changes.

That is, life itself is continuing to continue – as it always has, and probably always will.  What doesn’t continue to continue is any particular one of us people. Somebody or some folks will go on regardless of whatever is happening but many others will be discontinued, mostly involuntarily. People, consisting of whoever survives, is what will go on.

Change is what is normal

Change, regularly interrupted by catastrophes and other nastiness, is normal. Our state at any point in time is not normal but just a snapshot in the current change process. Here today, gone tomorrow.

Will change ever stop happening and give us a breather? Occasionally, change takes a day off (or a month, or maybe even longer) but it always comes back, fully rested and ready to have another go at us.

Given that change is normal and that nothing will stay the same for any decent period, our attention probably belongs on “what next”.

What next can be foreseen somewhat reliably at times when change is taking a break. When change is in full stride, what next can be almost impossible to discern. Like today.

Figuring out what next, which used to be known as forecasting, is possible during change-breaks but is largely impossible in normal times of active change.

Continuing to continue as a strategy

If you can’t figure out what is coming along next, you pretty much have to deal with whatever comes along, as it comes along – in real time. Planning for any extended period is not generally possible and may well be a formula for disaster.

Managing a business or other organization gets a bit difficult when effective planning can only be done for quite short periods ahead. Many actions are long-term in nature and are tough to turn off or modify greatly once begun.

When you can’t see clearly and reliably ahead for any substantial length of time, long-term actions – projects – become in effect gambles. Outcomes are highly uncertain. Gambles are certainly part of life in many organizations but they are typically constrained in both scope and loss-potential through pilots and stepwise roll-out processes.

Risk minimization becomes central to planning processes, but there is more. Much more.

Agility. Adaptability. Resilience. (AAR).

What is needed in an extended period of major change is an entirely different way of leading and managing. This has three primary components:

  • Agility – the ability to move quickly and change direction quickly. It involves very close attention to current conditions. It requires a very different kind of organization and culture.

  • Adaptability – the ability to function effectively in a wide variety of situations and events. It means an absence of structural rigidity and presence of operational flexibility.

  • Resilience – the ability to recover from almost any kind of adverse impact or situation. It goes beyond survival and extends to success post-recovery.

All three AAR components are essential for successful continuing.

Unsuccessful continuing all too often leads to discontinuing – involuntary typically. A constantly changing world is not kind to business-as-usual (BAU) practices. Your response to change has to be active, watchful, and effective AAR.

Beware of habits

Habits in leadership and management practices are the enemy of effective AAR. Much easier just to do what we have always done, subject to a few tweaks here and there, as we are forced. This is one of the best formulas for being discontinued.

Agility is inherently a habit-breaker. Small teams, locally led, and creatively proactive, track and even anticipate change. For these, BAU is absent.

Getting rid of habits is of course difficult in general. Each of us has personal experience with such difficulty. Groups of strong habit-followers are even harder to change.

This is why you need to have an agile culture and agile processes in place. Agile is anti-habit. This is neither a quick nor an easy process. It takes serious commitment from the top to accomplish. 

Reluctant acceptance of the world as it is also needed

I have always found it difficult to change the world to be a bit more as I might wish it to be. The world is indeed a very stubborn critter, doing pretty much its own thing despite any efforts to get it back in line.

Over the years, this process has led to a reluctant acceptance of the world as it insists on being. It has become mostly a part of the overall challenge of managing and overcoming that running a business requires. Kind of like the weather, where it would be nice to have a Berkeley CA climate year-round but reality insists that I deal daily with the inconvenient extremes and volatility of the Boston area weather. It’s just how things are in the local world here.

Probably pretty much like this nearly everywhere.

First step for continuing: developing an agile culture

This really requires a book, not a brief note concluding an already lengthy post. Nevertheless, the topic is so important today that is has to be at least highlighted. Details are for another day.

Here is what might serve as a starting point if you are new to agile as broadly applied to businesses and organizations. I’ll embed this matrix in its full size so you can zoom in or extract it, as you like. Agile Business Consortium:

Bottom line:

The real story here is that your goal should be “change to continue” rather than “continue to continue”, which seems more like business-as-usual. Success in a world of constant major change requires agile, adaptable, and resilient changes in pace with whatever it may be that the world is doing at each moment.

Larry Alton in Forbes listed five main characteristics of an agile work culture as applied to millennials: “Why Agile Work Cultures Are So Important To Millennials”: “These are some of the agile culture’s most important hallmarks:”

Flexibility. Agile work cultures are flexible in almost every respect. When a problem arises, there isn’t just one way to solve it, or one person responsible for solving it; the team works together to find the best solution (which could include a unique approach). Agile work environments may also be more flexible with working conditions, offering more remote work opportunities, flexible scheduling, and unlimited time off, to coax employees to find the rhythm that works best for them.”

“Responsibility distribution. Agile environments are also more fluid when it comes to assigning responsibilities. Rather than having a strict division of labor, there may be overlap and redundancies—which means your workday is more varied, and you can count on multiple team members to handle a given task.”

“Fast response times. Agile work environments also prioritize speed, whether it’s speed in adopting new standards and policies, or literal speed when addressing a new problem. You have more people capable of solving problems, and more methods available to solve problems, so problems naturally get solved faster.”

“Autonomy. Though not always true, most agile work cultures also have a heightened sense of autonomy; employees have more leeway and freedom to do work how they see fit. Obviously, there are some potential downsides to this (especially for inexperienced employees), but autonomy on the job is a leading predictor of job satisfaction.”

“Limited formalities. Agile work environments also have very limited formal structures dictating how work is supposed to be accomplished. They have leaders, rather than managers, and best practices rather than strict rules. Documentation and procedural requirements are sparser, and there are fewer hierarchies and bureaucracies.”

McKinsey & Company offered a number of insights and lessons on building an agile business culture: “Doing vs being: Practical lessons on building an agile culture”:

“Around the world, a growing number of organizations are embracing agility to improve delivery, increase speed, and enhance customer and employee experience. Indeed, in the time of COVID-19, many organizations have accelerated their shift to agile. Our recent research found that agile organizations responded faster to the crisis, while those that do not embrace agile working may well forfeit the benefits of speed and resilience needed in the ‘next normal’ after the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“In essence, agility at an enterprise level means moving strategy, structure, processes, people, and technology toward a new operating model by rebuilding an organization around hundreds of self-steering, high-performing teams supported by a stable backbone. On starting an agile transformation, many organizations emphasize and discuss tribes, squads, chapters, scrums, and DevOps pipelines. Our research shows, however, that the people dimension—culture especially—is the most difficult to get right. In fact, the challenges of culture change are more than twice as common as the average of the other top five challenges (Exhibit 1).”

The Agile Business Consortium has a helpful white paper on leadership aspects of agile business cultures: “Culture and Leadership: The Nine Principles of Agile Leadership”:

“Agile Leadership is essential if an organisation is to effect true Agile business change. Our first paper on Culture and Leadership explained how the concepts of Communication, Commitment and Collaboration were key; now the Agile Business Consortium has developed these concepts further with the “Nine Principles of Agile Leadership” that support Agile transformations. This table shows how the nine principles align with those key concepts of Communication, Commitment and Collaboration:

“Agile Leadership vs Good Leadership: “In creating these principles, we sought to identify the competencies, capabilities and capacities of an Agile Leader.  The purpose is to guide the thinking of our user audience by helping them to discuss what Agile Leadership means in the context of their organisation.  Many of our readers may think that Agile Leadership is just “Good Leadership” and we have just added ”Agile”. We believe that this is not the case and that Agile Leadership feels very different to, say, traditional leadership. The differences are in leadership style and the willingness to expand capacity and extend capabilities to be more Agile. This also feels very different to leadership where leaders are going through the motions of just doing Agile because of some wider directive. “

“Agile Leadership as a Continuum: An Agile mindset does not see things in a polarised view i.e. Agile or not.  Agility is not an all or nothing quality but instead should be considered on a continuum.   The Agile Leader is one who adapts, yet there are many good leaders in organisations who rarely adapt.  Some leaders have a command and control style of leadership, but that is not to say they are bad leaders.  However, many of these leaders find it harder than others to adapt because of their mindset (See Principle 1).  Agile Leadership is something that varies and improves over time.  We feel the principles go some way to describing what we consider Agile Leadership.  We have tested these principles with a wide audience of leaders and practitioners and they have assured us that while considered to be an evolving set of principles, they are a useful start for any senior executive or manager engaging in the work of transforming their organisation into an Agile one.”