We see the light because of the darkness. It is only in shadow, that we can find a path to the light. When we get there, let’s remember what led us forward.
A couple of weeks of global pandemic has made ordinary every day actions seem like unattainable joys – wantonly touching our face, engaging with the world, sitting in cafes, travel, visiting others and hugging family, friends and even strangers. We did these things routinely without thought, without concern and without enjoying them because in the light of endless sun everything was bleached and unremarkable. Now we sit in shadows we can see these joys clearly again.
The same holds true of our work. The human, the social and the collaborative we crave as we work away in the shadows within our homes. We did not appreciate these things in the bright sunshine. We were too busy on the dull mechanical parts of work, the process, and the dreary annoyances. Most of these continue to annoy us, but we now see that they can be removed, adjusted or even ignored.
I have spent the second part of my life
breaking the stones, drilling the walls, smashing the doors,
removing the obstacles I placed between the light and myself
in the first part of my life
Octavio Paz, from ‘Eagle or Sun?‘
Teams are working with new freedoms, autonomy and new levels of support in our new distributed life. Meetings go faster and there is less wasted time in our conversations and days. We aren’t mucking around when lives are on the line. From our shadows, we crave the light.
The bright sun will come again. This dark isolation is already bringing it forth slowly like an inevitable dawn. The shadows will be darker, sharper and longer before they are gone.
Like chiaroscuro, we can use the shadows to illuminate us, to help us better see the form and perspective of our lives and work. In the darkest hours, what remains bright should guide us forward.
The challenge is to remember the brightness we craved in the dark when the light returns. Sooner than we think our lives will be awash in sunlight and the pressures and challenges of distinction will return. The work we need to do is to ensure that we spend more time on these bright spots and allow the shadows and mundane distractions to whither from lack of attention and effort.
Wash your hands. Stay at home. Practice physical isolation where ever you can. Take care to wear protection around those who might be infected.
These are the actions we need. They are our rules to guide decision making. We follow them to protect ourselves, those we care most about and others. We make these decisions every day to protect ourselves from the virus.
The virus didn’t decide these rules. If it had emotions, it would hate them.
The virus doesn’t get to decide.
The virus doesn’t get to decide anything. It’s not even alive.
If there is a sin against life, it consists perhaps not so much in despairing of life as in hoping for another life and in eluding the implacable grandeur of this life.
Every single decision we make is ours. We will own it. That ownership will help us make better decisions. The accountability is ours because we live with the consequences. It’s our life, our family, our work, our organisations and our society.
People are starting to use ‘because the virus’ as an excuse to stop, start or continue. Like many excuses, it obscures more than it explains. We need to remember the virus decides nothing. We make the decisions and, if we outsource our decisions to a virus, we will have an issue when the epidemic ends. It will end.
There is always a philosophy for lack of courage.
Whether we are going step-by-step, making a little leap or making even bolder changes, these are changes in the context of an epidemic. Some choices are closed to us. What choices remain are still choices we make. They aren’t changes for or against a virus. We have chosen them. We need to own them.
Life still goes on. Right now. Life goes on. We need to live every day. We still need to dream, realise our dreams and our potential. We need to live today even in the midst of a viral epidemic. We live, not for our work, our family or others, but because we live today. It’s our life and the rest of it starts now.
We need to decide and to act today. We need to hold ourselves accountable to do the best we can to with our circumstances, our potential and our goals. We need to manage our responsibilities to family, work and community but we need to recognise that those responsibilities are decisions too. They can change when we change our circumstances and our actions.
This post is not a call for individualism. We’ve seen enough of that reckless behaviour in this crisis. We need collaboration, but we mustn’t confuse collaboration with consensus or concession to others. If our actions and our lives are to be sustainable we must live for both ourselves and others. We will always care for others that’s big part of humanity, but we can’t only live for others.
We dream. We decide. We act. Our time starts now.
"I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us."
We’ve strained our resilience. We’ve adapted. Now we’re in the realm of exaptation.
Resilience and Adaptation
Resilience is a critical starting point. Resilience helps us stay engaged and to recover from the buffets of our stresses and challenges. There are many demands on resilience in this crisis. However, we can’t rely solely on resilience. Resilience only carries us back to where we were before. This crisis will likely demand more from us. We are a resilient bunch. We will recover.
However, our times are going to challenge us to go further than just adaptation. We are going to need to leverage our potential and the potential of others in ways we never thought possible before. We are going to act out beyond our known capabilities. We are going to get creative with what our potential means and what it can deliver for us.
Exaptation is a term from evolution. It is the development of the function of a trait or feature created for one purpose to support another purpose. The classic example is feathers which may have been an adaptation to provide warmth and insulation, but now enable birds, descendants of dinosaurs, to fly with grace. As an example, my Change Agent colleague, Joachim Stroh, has used the concept of exaptation to describe the way that communities adopt and invent new ways of working on collaboration platforms. Yesterday, I talked about the surgeon working as a nurse using his medical talents as needed by his colleagues now. Last night, I was reading how Archie Rose, a distiller, has now found so much succcess making hand sanitiser that it has rehired all its 20 bar staff to work across packing and customer service line for the new product. Stories of adatation and exaptation are everywhere around us. Capabilities and potential being redeployed in creative new ways to support our goals of surviving, growing and getting better.
We all have capabilities and potential that lie fallow or could be redeployed to new and creative purpose. Organisations that see this environment as a chance to cut ‘dead wood’ or to focus too narrowly on ‘core capabilities’ are missing the potential to leverage these capabilities in new, better and creative ways. ‘Shrinking to greatness’ strategies show the limits of our imagination and our leadership.
People who see one role or career or path shut down will find new ways to leverage their potential and to create new value for themselves and for others. Our role is to aid that process with questions, coaching and support. People will need to mourn but they will also need to dream new dreams to pursue this change.
We can all see what can’t be done at the moment. For those losing activities, business and roles, it feels final. We have to help people to ask “What can I do with what I have?’ We have to ask people to be bold and creative in tackling this question. If they do, the process of adaptation and exaptation will lead people to new imagination and new dreams. For some, it may be enough to change their lives and their businesses for ever.
Dinosaurs didn’t go from the ground to flight with a single step. They developed that change over a range of smaller adaptations and exaptations, building their capabilities and the functions to succeed as they go. Small changes accumulate. Capabilities build. New things become possible. New successes can be found if we hold our hope, dream, experiment, and try. We too need to look for the little step-by-step changes we can make to leverage our potential, make use of our capabilities and move forward to a better future.
Frankly I’d swap it all my exaptation for a little exaltation. However, the magic of hope is that I continue to dream and I continue to act step-by-step, then I know that the exaltation of success (or the exaltation of an end to this) is coming too.
Curves flatten. People recover. We mourn our many losses and eventually restart our lives. It is not a case of ‘this too shall pass’ for each of those outcomes requires human action. We want better. We have to act to achieve it.
The nature of the human spirit is to seek to realise our potential. We will get better. Our drive for improvement occurs unless we (or others) quash it. The only question is when and at what scale. The answer to that question depends on our actions.
Start Small. Start Now.
In the heart of our troubles, now is the time for action step-by-step.
We can sustain what we can of our lives. We can stay at home. We can wash our hands. We can support those in need. We can reach out to others to make sure that they are OK. We can offer to help. We can start planning the recovery and what will be different. All of these critical actions make life better, for us and for others.
Our losses are obvious now. Lives upended. Jobs lost. Incomes cut. Health threatened. Our gains from these actions are diffuse, but they are still there. Every physical contact cut is one less pathway for the crisis to spread. We are saving others. We just don’t know who. We are making it better now.
We are beginning that recovery process now. We are thinking about what needs to change. We have tidied our homes, changed our diets and our habits. We are now debating changes to the role of social safety nets, our corporations and government in times of crisis. As we move forward we need to ensure we don’t get in our own way.
I saw a tweet on the weekend about a Consulting thoracic surgeon in the NHS who has volunteered to work as an ICU nurse to allow tired nurses a rest. Stories like this one are everywhere as retirees return to the healthcare system, people add shifts, solve for shortages, invent new devices and work in new & creative ways. It is not a heroic story. It is a small story about one gesture in a large crisis, but is an example of someone focusing on their potential and not role, or status, or power, or income. In all kinds of ways, people are discovering what they are capable of doing and doing it. Answering the question ‘What can I do now?’ is a powerful guide to the next step in any realisation of our potential.
The next step of our recovery is changing lives. First the lives of those who must recover from their losses. Then all our lives as our society works to make things better. That’s a lot of work. We will only achieve it together. It will take us all to focus on our own potential and the potential of others. We will need to ask ourselves ‘What can I do now? What can we do now together?’
Every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step
Faced with an uncertain path, we can still step forward. Step-by-step we will make our way through what lies ahead. Where we end is unknown, but our dreams can lead us forward a step at a time.
Days always pass. We don’t need to worry about the relentless rush forwards of time.
The challenge in this uncertain, novel and difficult environment is how we act through all the uncertainties. The doubts and questions surround us. Will there be more shutdowns? Will there be more illness? What will happen to my job, my colleagues, my contacts and so on? Speculation can consume your entire capacity to act. That is if action is not yet entirely overwhelmed by the relentless onslaught of terrible news of loss from around the world.
I have a mantra that has been part of my crisis toolkit for many years. It is my weapon against feelings of loss, frustration and powerlessness. We all would like to wish we weren’t in the situation of a deadly global pandemic. However, we can’t wish that away and mourning our losses takes us so far. It is situations like these that I remind myself:
Some times the only way out is through
We have to go through this. We don’t have to go through it alone, but we have to go through this.
When things are dark, complex and uncertain, it can come down to putting one foot in front of the other, step-by-step. We get out the other side by solving the challenges in each step, in each day and so on until we are done. That is the way through.
For those trying to manage work and life in this complex domain it is also an exercise in focusing down on the road immediately in front. We can and should still dream of far horizons, but there will be few leaps in this climate. Progress might seem belaboured. It will be. However, we can just focus on the next task and the next task as step-by-step we move closer to our goal.
A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving. A good artist lets his intuition lead him wherever it wants. A good scientist has freed himself of concepts and keeps his mind open to what is
Thus the Master is available to all people and doesn’t reject anyone. He is ready to use all situations and doesn’t waste anything. This is called embodying the light.
You know your Yammer network is a way to communicate openly with the organisation outside the small and closed working groups that might operate in Microsoft Teams. Here are three extra and important roles that Yammer can play in your organisation at this time:
As humans, nothing happens without a context. We use the context to understand messages, to interpret goals. to do our work and to make sense of changes. We need that context to be shared widely if we are to understand each other, communicate efficiently and collaborate. Organisations and employees don’t work well if they are constantly sorting out issues of missing context.
Yammer is the outer loop of your organisational communication. It is a place employees can go to pull context and to improve their understanding. It is also a place they can share their context. When the world outside is changing fast they may know more than you. Make sure your leaders are sharing their organisational context widely on Yammer. More importantly, ask each of your teams and employees to do the same. Working out loud, sharing working in progress with relevant others, is a great way to give people context on the work underway. When things are changing rapidly, continuously sharing context is more important than ever. This is the Share stage of the Collaboration Maturity Model in action.
Over-communicate context. Use Yammer to foster a questioning culture where people ask for context. Make it acceptable to clarify and understand deeply before racing into action.
In times of crises, hierarchies intensify their efforts at coordination. Improving coordination down a silo is important. However, coordination between silos becomes critical to preventing unnecessary waste and failures.
Coordination between silos is rarely best managed from the top. These issues arise when the top down plan fails in execution in specific locations or specific customer contexts. This is a time that the Solve stage of the Collaboration Maturity Model needs to be leveraged to bring people together across silos locally to address issues and develop new ways of working that fix the problem.
Despite the sense of crisis, in fact because of it, you will need to allow your employees the psychological safety and degrees of freedom to make these changes and to help the whole organisation to adjust. Your Yammer network can enable you to role model, reward and celebrate this effort openly and widely.
People don’t make it through crises. Communities do. Managing a crisis draws on deep reserves in our organisations and in its external networks. You are likely to need support from customers, suppliers and others in your change journey as you manage the situation.
Use Yammer to build a shared sense of community across the many teams in your organisation. Share stories, share dreams, share successes, share challenges and more. Remember community doesn’t only depend on good news. Communities come together because the obstacles are the work. Your employees will discover their reason for working as they tackle these challenges. Give them the chance to share that.
A community is not a leader standing at a lectern supplying a sense of community to others. Community arises from the little every day gestures of concern, of care and of collaboration across your organisation. Use Yammer to foster this activity from the ground up across your organisation. Your community managers can find champions to lead the way using their existing Yammer activity (& Swoop Analytics profiles if you use that tool). Importantly you need to ask frontline leaders of all kinds to role model these behaviours and encourage others to contribute to community in this way. Nobody needs a training course on what community means. They just need an invitation to practice it. Community is innately human.
On twitter, Jon Husband asked if the same approaches apply for other enterprise social networks and platforms. My answer is ‘of course, yes’. Many of my followers are Yammer users so I have framed it in those terms. Any other open platform will enable employees to take the lead in understanding context, creating coordination and building community. That same opportunity doesn’t happen in closed chat channels or tightly controlled platforms that don’t allow users degrees of freedom to initiate, to share or to work. This is not a communications challenge. This is a collaboration opportunity. The openness empowers employees and that’s where our focus needs to be at this time.
‘Every human being has the freedom to change at any instant’
When the reality is oppressive, we need dreams. Dreams are the stories that help us remember our potential. Dreams can be our guide to change
We don’t expect dreams to come to life as they are. They are not a roadmap. Dreams are a story of how things could be. They are a signpost to new and better things. Nightmares are signposts to paths we want to avoid.
Dreams don’t lead us into the trapped of a fixed pursuit of a goal or an overly optimistic deadline. Neither of these are suited to our time. They both are likely to lead to disappointments. We need hope but we also need a cold calculation of where we stand today and how we can act.
The value of dreams is that they are not a simple mission statement. Dreams come as full stories whether they are the ones we have when we sleep or the lives we imagine while awake. We can share these stories to inspire ourselves and others to new hope and new action together.
Our dreams guide our sense of purpose and shape our attitude. Never has it been more important than to take care of our attitudes, acknowledging the lows and preparing for what comes next.
We can choose our attitude. We can choose our dreams. We can act today if we can. That maybe all we have. That is enough for now.
These days are raw. Emotions well up. The real world is overwhelming us quite literally.
Exponential change is not our normal world. Exponential change happens slowly at first then suddenly becomes large and all consuming. People will be surprised by the rapidity of changes. The later we respond the more drastic the action required. It’s now that time.
Drastic changes mean that we are forced to react and react to our reactions. Before we are settled on one new set of rules the changes come again. At the same time we are dealing with stories we never imagined in our modern life. We are coping with fear, panic and losss. We struggle to make sense of how the world works now. No wonder things seem raw.
We need to recognise that the stories we hear, the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we tell each other fit into a larger system. These stories come from community and they are suffused with culture. Now is the time to sustain these connections, even in our isolation. Especially because of our isolation.
Community is what enables us to realise our human potential. If we are ever to convert our talents from their raw state to something more valuable it will be because of, supported by, and for our communities. Purpose does not lie in us. It lies in our contributions to others. The harder it gets the more important our contribution is. The obstacles are the work.
We feel raw because we care. We care for ourselves. We care for others. Human beings are inherently social. Care, culture and community is what has enabled and sustained our society. In raw times, we must not abandon these critical enablers. We must redouble our commitment to them. They are our path forward together.
Care, culture and community help us to look beyond today. We feel today like all we can see is the loss. We may yet lose very big things like jobs, incomes, wealth, status, and more importantly the lives of ones we love. What we don’t lose is our potential to recover, to rebuild and to renew. We will mourn our losses together at some point in the future but we will go on and make something new and better again together. We cannot see it clearly now but we can make the next phase better together with care and community.
Today you have the simple choice. You will be raw in your experience of this threatening world. Forgive yourself for the rawness, the pain, the regret and the loss. They are real. Give yourself also the time to reach out, to care for others, to share stories and to embrace the culture and community within which we live. Others need help more than ever now. Your contact and concern could be the most important gesture in their life today.