The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.
— Socrates

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”
— Albert Camus

You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
— Thomas Merton

“The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis. ‘ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger–but recognize the opportunity.”

— John F. Kennedy

Lockdowns of some kind seem to have become a new way of life. Even major consultant McKinsey & Company, in a November 23, 2020 article “When will the COVID-19 pandemic end?”, projects a likely duration through most of 2022. Anything that lasts that long and that is being enforced so vigorously will end up becoming permanent in some form.

The devastation being caused is so huge that its impacts are already changing nearly everything. Much of this change will not be reversible. We are living in a new world, the nature of which is still largely unknown.

We are beyond the point where an understanding of what is going on may help. We need only to know how whatever-may-be-going-on is affecting our own world. The reality is that we are all facing major change for some unknown period of time. And that many of the impacts will be permanent.

Big changes create big opportunities  

This fact of life has been known for approximately forever:

“Victory comes from finding opportunities in problems.”

— Sun Tzu

“In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity.”

— Albert Einstein

“The entrepreneur always searches for change, responds to it, and exploits it as an opportunity.”

— Peter Drucker

We sure do have the driving ingredient – change – so we must have available the resulting opportunities as well, yes?. If so, the challenge is to get past the changes and their impacts as much as possible and to move ahead on discovering opportunities that are available to each of us.

Lockdowns are a particularly painful change for so many of us. But the danger is not so much from the causes but in becoming obsessed with them. We need to keep in mind that opportunities will probably disappear when the pain does.

Our window for the most effective action is likely to be brief. Hopefully.

Seeking opportunity in tough times is not lacking compassion

Stereotypical hard-hearted businesspeople are actually pretty compassionate in my experience. Surprisingly so in so many cases. But they all have businesses to run that employ hundreds and thousands of people.

For a business leader to focus narrowly on the situation (pandemic-lockdown) and not to shift as strongly as possible to dealing productively with the situation, whatever it may actually be, is management malpractice. It is also highly discompassionate.

Real management compassion is demonstrated by successful efforts to make the business survive, and possibly even thrive. The livelihoods of so very many depend upon this kind of leadership.

Okay, so exactly what kind of opportunities are available today?

And how can we tell if they are compassionate to at least some degree?

Compassionate opportunities?

I’ll bet that very few management books and practices deal with this issue. I have not run across any that I can recall. Lots of empathy stuff out there right now but compassion?

The always-helpful Wikipedia offers this definition:

“Compassion motivates people to go out of their way to help the physical, mental, or emotional pains of another and themselves. Compassion is often regarded as having sensitivity, an emotional aspect to suffering. Though, when based on cerebral notions such as fairness, justice, and interdependence, it may be considered rational in nature and its application understood as an activity also based on sound judgment.”

Helping people avoid or reduce their suffering seems central. “Understood as an activity based on sound judgment” sounds very much like a solid management practice guideline.

This definition seems to preclude any causing of suffering, such as too-common predatory practices that might be tolerated in normal times but no longer. It also suggests a focus on helping reduce suffering where it is encountered.

Both are attributes of most executives and managers that I have known.

Business survival and growth help reduce and avoid suffering

It seems to me that the most compassionate thing that business leaders can do right now is to make sure that their businesses remain strong while avoiding any predatory practices. Apart from avoiding predatory practices, this sounds like what business leaders do 24/7 in normal times.

Maybe the real challenge here is avoiding actions that damage other businesses. It probably also includes trying to help struggling businesses wherever possible.

How might this work in practice?

A local example is giant Whole Foods shifting hugely to delivery and pickup. In-store shoppers today are mostly employees filling delivery and pickup orders. Several quite wonderful, small local food stores cannot do this and Whole Foods (Amazon) must be cutting deeply into their sales. One small store in mid-Cambridge has added spirits sales to its formerly limited selection of beers and wines. It also has a deli that seems to have some customers, although far fewer than when it was often packed with in-store diners. Lots of takeout though.

Whole Foods jumped at the delivery shift opportunity because delivery is what Amazon does. Almost certainly no intention to harm or affect small food stores. Small guys have to look out for themselves. As always.

Restaurant and food service lockdown opportunities

These businesses have been absolutely devastated by the lockdowns. Small and large. Many empty storefronts appearing. Many sidewalk dining areas also appearing, forcing pedestrians onto the street to get around these.

Some of these new sidewalk cafes are quite elaborate. Some even have heating, since we are rumored to have winter weather occasionally in the Northeast. It might be fun to experience outdoor dining in a snowstorm but probably only once.

The competitive action most apparent is between the large and small food service businesses. Big guys win, small guys lose and disappear. Nothing predatory here so far as I can see. This process has been happening forever. Mechanics may be different in detail today but outcomes seem largely unchanged.

No evident compassion involved here but just same-old competition.

Office buildings lockdown opportunities

The major shift to remote working seems likely to become largely permanent in its impact on office building owners. Many tenant businesses can no longer afford high rents, or any rents, so they are leaving office spaces in droves. A former client of mine has recently become 100% remote (no office at all) as well as cutting almost 90% of its employees. Lean and virtual. And doing well.

There are a few small co-working space businesses nearby but all appear to have closed or are heading shortly in that direction. They have been killed off by the lockdowns rather than anything that large competitors are doing. The big guys here seem to be facing the same crushing pressures from remote work.

Again, no evident compassion or not in this fast-imploding business.

Healthcare services lockdown opportunities

Hospitals are already being impacted by urgent care walk-in storefronts, which started quite some time ago. These businesses offer mainly convenience relative to more distant and complex hospitals and their ER’s.

I live close to a major hospital and there are several more within a few-mile radius. Despite media claims of hospitals being at near-capacity, there has been an amazing reduction lately in ambulance sirens. Maybe this just reflects people using urgent care services increasingly as opposed to hospital ER’s but it may reflect a fundamental shift in how people access health care services.

Lockdowns and associated pandemic fear have caused many people to defer or avoid health care visits that were formerly almost automatic. Some of this is damaging to seriously-ill people but health care, which is nothing if not compassionate, seems to be undergoing huge changes.

Opportunities here seem to be favoring the small local services (many of which are units of very large health care operations). The highest-rated urgent care provider near me is a small independent provider despite the huge number of larger healthcare providers, both hospital and urgent care, in this area.

This fundamentally compassionate service industry is just changing, with large and small providers becoming stronger or weaker. Opportunities seem to favor small units and convenience. At least for the moment.

So where is the evidence of predatory practices?

As the above examples suggest, predatory practices appear to be either completely absent or so inconsequential as to be invisible. I believe that most business leaders are fundamentally good people who simply would not resort to such practices except perhaps in desperation.

What is clearly evident is great ingenuity in responding to the growing fact of long-term lockdowns. No anguish and gnashing of teeth but just good managers digging into the enormous challenges of surviving and succeeding in this new world of business.

This is evidence of good business practices – just what we want. Each business is trying its best to protect the jobs of its employees by limiting downsizing to the least amount possible.

Good leaders jump at new opportunities

Some do so more effectively than others but many see this time of enormous change as an opportunity-generator. This vision of lockdown-as-opportunity is available to virtually every business. Lockdowns, despite their nastiness, are simply a part of the complex tsunami of changes we are struggling with.

War and natural disasters also are changes that can have a huge long-term impact on millions. Businesses have faced and overcome these kinds of changes forever, just like they are facing lockdowns here (and almost everywhere) today. Lockdowns are just a somewhat new kind of change but taking advantage of change is what the best businesses do and have always done.

Since it appears that few businesses can make any significant impact on the current lockdowns and related practices, nearly all are simply dealing with their world as it is. Changes just are, and we mostly cannot do anything much about them. This means that opportunities just are as well but you must be very nimble and creative to identify and take advantage of whatever opportunities exist.

Ignoring available opportunities just doesn’t seem like a good management practice.

Bottom line:

Lockdowns, nasty and destructive though they may be, are just a form of change – that is life and has always been so. Most business leaders are fundamentally good people who would not intentionally harm a competitor if not forced to. Instead, they focus on protecting their businesses and employees to the greatest extent they can. Pursuing opportunities can indeed be compassionate.

BusinessWest consultant Dakota Murphey suggests some very specific opportunities in her article “Unusual opportunities for businesses during lockdown”: 

“Lockdown has created a huge range of challenges for business of all sizes. Those that do not qualify as essential businesses may have been forced to close their premises, and others that can stay open face a completely changed economic landscape which they are trying to survive in. But it is important to remember that just as there are real challenges, there are also fantastic opportunities.”

Alison Coleman writing in Forbes looks at the entrepreneurial opportunities developing from lockdowns: “How Six Entrepreneurs Unleashed Their Best Business Ideas During Lockdown”:

“Lockdown has created huge challenges for businesses and their founders, with a sudden fall of revenue, and for some, the closure of their premises, and the knowledge that a very uncertain future awaits once the pandemic is over. But rather than dwell on the frustrations, many entrepreneurs have focused on the opportunities and used their enforced time in isolation to make the most of them.”

Code Brew Labs offers ten thought-provoking ideas on what businesses are likely to thrive during lockdowns: “10 Business Ideas That Are Worth Investing Amidst COVID-19”:

“The spread of Coronavirus pandemic has affected almost every continent and country. While it has created a great panic amongst the people, the world has seen a sudden unfolding of several events, which were beyond imaginations so far. With the daily increase in the number of positive cases of COVID- 19, now more and more people have confined themselves to four walls.”

“As the situation doesn’t seem to be improving very soon, every section of the society is enforced to look for an alternate option to run their day to day operations. And the business world is not an exception. But thankfully, technology has turned out to be a great savior for many industries. The announcements of health regulators to maintain social distancing made customers stay in. On the other hand, it has brought forth an opportunity for the entrepreneurs and business owners to give it back to society in the most critical times.”