“The past is a place of reference, not a place of residence; the past is a place of learning, not a place of living.”  

― Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart

We read so much today about the “old normal” being destroyed by a virus and fear and that this will lead to a “new normal” being created. Never happened before, right?

Changes for much of existence happen slowly and predictably enough to permit even huge complex businesses to adapt. They manage even during wars and natural catastrophes, unless the business is inconveniently situated in ground-zero territory.

The real problems occur when the changes are so massive or occur so quickly that successful adaptation becomes, for most, impossible. Today, we have both huge change and sudden change to deal with. If these were caused by an event from which near-term recovery seems likely, then we could anticipate “old normal” coming back. It is when the changes are actually non-reversible and likely to be permanent that our troubles really begin.

The “past” is usually thought of as being an extended period of relative stability and predictability, perhaps interrupted for short periods by localized natural catastrophes and limited wars. This past continues into the future – until it stops.

We seem to be experiencing one of those “until-it-stops” times when the changes are very large and almost certainly permanent. What was before – the past – is gone and will not, cannot return. It may or may not have been regarded by most as “normal” but it, whatever it was, is gone. Forever.

We have been suddenly thrust into the “future”, which seems to be an uncomfortable and fast-changing “now”. Uncertainty and unpredictability dominate. This is definitely not any “new normal” as most understand “normal”.

Normal means stability and predictability

“Normal” appears to mean an extended period of stability and predictability. Normality is probably understood with reference to the past, so that a “new normal” would look pretty much like the old normal. Few big or lasting changes.

Any bets on whether where we seem to be headed will be any kind of “normal” within any reasonably tolerable period?

If 2020 so far is any indication, normal is a long way off. What we are likely to experience for an extended period is more big changes, unpredictability, and uncertainty.

This is not what most people are equipped to deal with effectively. It will crush the weak, enrich the strong, and affect the majority – with great randomness.

Some will welcome any kind of stability and predictability even at the loss of most fundamental freedoms. Life in Soviet Russia was extremely stable and predictable for many decades. China in the twentieth century lived similarly. But such “normality” is nearly always purchased at the cost of tyranny.

Not so good. Do we have other options?

Complex large civilizations nearly always collapse internally. One study of empires across the past many centuries by Sir John Glubb suggests that collapse occurs on average after roughly 250 years of existence. Depending on where you start the American “empire” age count, we seem to be pretty close to being done. But only if we are “average”.

Collapse can be rapid or slow but it seems inevitable. Empires subsequently tend to break up into much smaller units that become largely self-sustaining and self-governing for at least some period.

Major, rapid change places huge stresses on any large complex organization, including countries and empires. These stresses can drive breakups into smaller units of diverse kinds.

Perhaps this is what we are facing today. Breakup of the major players into smaller units that are more adaptable and less costly to maintain.

Good riddance maybe?

The past may well be overrated as a model for continued existence, which is at least a temporary future. History is full of wars, plagues, famines – all manner of nastiness. Since history is the past, who wants it? Time for something new?

We are unfortunately stuck in a never-ending present. It flows often painfully into the trash bin of the past, while replacing itself with an uncertain and not always kindly future. Such is life, or so they say.

Some pasts are largely good and mostly happy. Well, at least for some folks. The good-old days, which exist mainly as memories that exclude the rough parts.

When we think of “normal”, we are usually thinking about a period of relative stability, peace, and prosperity. Or something along these lines. An easier, less stressful life.

Living today in extremely chaotic times, almost anything else would fit this definition of “normal”. In this context, a return to the “past”, even a somewhat nasty one, might be welcomed. Unfortunately, the world does not appear to work that way. It does its own thing, whatever we may hope for.

Is there any hope at all, then?

Yes, of course. Change is constant, whatever that means. If you don’t like today, then wait until tomorrow. Or maybe, instead, make a concerted effort to use the changes to build a much more favorable tomorrow.

This may sound like a fix-the-world approach but it is not. In practice, it simply means understanding changes as they occur and taking advantage of those that seem better for you and your business. If the world gets fixed in some way as well, then so much the better. Or, maybe more generously stated, if we can find a better path for ourselves, we will be in a better position to help the world, or at least some small part of it.

Here comes the New Whatever

If things are always changing no matter who or what is driving the changes, then just maybe that is the way the real world works. Life changes continuously from the old-something to the new-whatever. It just does its thing. The future truly is “whatever” – unpredictable and of unknown duration. Undoubtedly “new” as well.

So, maybe the way we manage through this (aka life) is to build our businesses so as to be successful in any New Whatever that may occur. The only thing that we can be sure of is that the New Whatever is on its way or has already occurred.

The keys to succeeding in almost and New Whatever are agility and adaptability:

  • Agility means that you are aware of what impacts your business on a daily basis, that you can decide quickly on an effective response, and that you can act quickly once a decision is made.
  • Adaptability requires organizational flexibility and creativity. Roadblocks to change have to be systematically identified and removed. Creativity, or innovativeness if you prefer, requires hiring and advancing people who are especially strong here. Groupthink needs to be monitored and disrupted routinely. Small units and teams should be formed on the fly to deal with whatever comes along.

Let’s welcome change and build on it

Stable societies in the past were largely unchangeable. You could not change much of anything, unless you happened to be Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan. You just lived as best you could within the current rigid context.

Big changes occurred but not frequently and mostly locally. Things happened slowly over generations for most of humanity. Changes were almost imperceptible and driven by unseen and unknown processes.

Not a great time for innovators but there were a few, and more as time passed. Knowledge and social structures evolved in accelerating ways as the Dark Ages passed and the Renaissance bloomed. Change became part of life as the New World opened and industrialization began. Today, change is life.

It is hard today to imagine a world in which there was little change. Many people today thrive on change and many are primary drivers of change.

“The past is over; the present is fleeting; we live in the future.” says inventor Ray Kurzweil.

Hard to disagree with Ray but what does it actually mean for us day-to-day folks? We really don’t live in the future or the past but only in the present, and as Ray kindly observes,  it is “fleeting” – changing. Again, change is life.

What can we do with “change”?

Well, we can simply go with the flow. Let change do whatever it will do. We’re okay with that. Nice fantasy but you can’t run a business very often by going with the flow. If you try, the flow may carry you under. The flow is rarely your friend.

Change generates opportunities that are the lifeblood of most enterprises.

To use change constructively, you need organizational agility and adaptability as noted above. These capabilities are necessary but not sufficient.

The additional ingredients for success are real-time tracking of business conditions that directly impact you and embedded innovation processes that can develop great responses to opportunities that become visible.

This is a very different way of managing a business. Top-down hierarchies won’t work well enough any longer. Decisions need to be made close to the action level by those in direct contact with the players.

A business designed in this way will have a much wider range of conditions that it can effectively address and use constructively.

Bottom line:

We need change. The old not-Chinese (see below) proverb or curse “May you live in interesting times” might be restated as a well-wish: “May you live in changing times”. Living without change or even with tightly-constrained change is unthinkable today. Change makes life interesting as well as being the source of great opportunities.

Good riddance to the past!

 The Phrase Finder website says: “’May you live in interesting times’ is widely reported as being of ancient Chinese origin but it is neither Chinese nor ancient, instead being recent and western.” According to the site, the phrase was originally said by the American politician, Frederic R. Coudert, in 1939.

Consultant McKinsey & Company has a good article on exactly this topic but more from a big business and world perspective: “Beyond coronavirus: The path to the next normal”:

For some organizations, near-term survival is the only agenda item. Others are peering through the fog of uncertainty, thinking about how to position themselves once the crisis has passed and things return to normal. The question is, ‘What will normal look like?’ While no one can say how long the crisis will last, what we find on the other side will not look like the normal of recent years.

Fortune magazine has a short article on “3 changes businesses will need to adapt to post-coronavirus” that addresses among other changes the much greater impact of government:

“First, there will be more government intervention—and therefore greater scrutiny of business. Governments around the world have pumped trillions into their economies directly and have also cut interest rates and applied other forms of monetary stimulus. As governments step up to serve, or save, the private sector, the means they choose will differ. Some will outright nationalize, some will take equity stakes, some will provide loans, and others will choose to regulate. How much, how fast, and in what ways governments eventually reduce their economic role will be some of the most important questions of the next decade.”

Consultant Bain & Company really nails the New Normal being not what most expect – truly a New Whatever – in this article: “The “New Normal” Is a Myth. The Future Won’t Be Normal at All”. Here is how it starts off, then getting far better:

“For a moment in history, every company shared the same simple mission statement: Protect our people, our customers, and our business. The terrible human toll of coronavirus and the mounting economic damage brought a singular clarity and urgency of purpose, forcing thousands of company experiments in new ways of working and operating.”