Pandemic – and reopening - surprises
When an inflection point comes to a head, human beings are remarkably ingenious in adapting to its requirements. It may not be fun, but we figure it out. But when the changes wrought by the inflection point settle in for good, a lot of re-learning and adjustment needs to happen.
When the world as we knew it ended
I’ve never seen anything that touched all of humanity at much the same time the way the COVID 19 pandemic did. And what was quite amazing was by and large how well organizations adapted. There were definitely hiccups in the planning, and as my colleague Bent Flyvbjerg would say, we could have done a far better job with fast mitigation, rather than the half measures that allowed the virus to take hold. But from a business point of view, it was pretty impressive.
At Columbia Executive Education, for instance, we looked at an entire semester of programming that had to be cancelled, with unknown prospects for what would come next. But we rallied, introduced a live online format and re-imagined what our world would be like in that setup. And it worked! In some cases, the online version was richer and better for networking than the in-person ones were.
For me personally (and many of my colleagues, such as members of the Silicon Guild) the speaking business fell off a cliff. The first period was kind of frantic – with everyone in lockdown, there was a big spate of virtual events, many of them free. And then eventually, the conference business shifted and sort of normalized. We all got ring lights, microphones and better cameras. We invested in backgrounds, real and virtual. We figured out every hosting platform out there. We learned to screen-share. And the business came back in a kind of cool new way. Where every speech or talk before involved some kind of travel, now I could visit Africa in the morning, Europe at mid-day and Asia in the evening – all in one day.
A surprise: Just how much overhead it takes to do business in person
What is fascinating to me about that period now is how normal it felt to shift to this frictionless, travel-free way of connecting with audiences. A lot of my colleagues would confess (in private) that they were loving the absence of travel and the ability to spend time with their families and on hobbies and their personal health (which take a beating when you are on the road for a good chunk of the year).
The virtual way of working had after two years become so ingrained that I totally underestimated what a shock it would be to begin to interact in person again.
I had forgotten (at a muscle memory level) just how much time it takes to manage the logistics of travel and meetings. With two big trips coming up intermingled with teaching and speaking, I found myself spending hours just figuring out the steps to get from A to B for every inch of those journeys. I’m definitely out of practice. It also takes an extra effort to remember that an in-person meeting (even one in your own location) just takes more logistical effort than a virtual one.
Which brings me to an interesting possibility, which is that now that we have learned to be so effective in so many settings virtually, will the “price” (whether monetary or otherwise) for doing things in person rise? I suspect so.
I suspect this is also a factor in the flat-out refusal of many workers to return to rigid office schedules. Many never knew it was a workable option before – with that knowledge, the overhead of the daily grind, the commute, the exhaustion, and the effort simply doesn’t seem worth it. And employers, grudgingly or not, seem to be recognizing this – a recent survey found that only 4% of employers are making a full return to the office mandatory.
It's surprising how things we assumed had to be done in person, well, don’t
One of the assumptions that everyone made before the pandemic was that major transactions, such as the purchase of big IT systems, major mergers, and arrangements for big consulting contracts had to be dealt with in person. What that assumption did was condemn a good many road warriors to endless nights in business friendly hotels that try to offer some elements of a homelike environment.
We found out, though, that the assumption wasn’t correct. As an observer notes, “Virtual Selling is here to Stay”. Bad for the airlines and hotels, better for the weary road warrior and sort of even for the clients. In fact, a recent McKinsey study found that buyers are liking the idea of virtual sales processes and even ditching multiple meetings for email exchanges and other forms of information sharing.
On the other hand, learning, building community and creative problem solving are far more one-dimensional on a screen. For those activities you can’t beat face to face. Where I think we are beginning to land on all this is with a more nuanced understanding of what kinds of interactions are better in person, but also for which the in person element isn’t all that critical.
Surprisingly good news about virtual teaching
As we at Columbia took our courses to the live online format, one of the great delights was that we could bring participants into our virtual classrooms who never could have joined us in person, for budget or logistical reasons. One of my favorites was a participant in my “Leading Strategic Growth and Change” course who joined the course (which ran in Eastern time) from Australia! He was literally logging on at 2 am for 4-5 hours, then heading off to work. I admire that determination.
We also learned that it is possible to create a truly global, trusting, community online. A great example is our “Women in Leadership” course. It runs for 3 full days on campus in the live version and we redesigned it to run over 4 weeks, for a few hours during two days of those weeks. Having the more spread-out format allowed for the learning to really sink in, but also for people from many different regions to get to know one another over an extended period – the group is still in touch and keeps an active chat going.
The surprising ability to tap into global talent
I regretfully opened an email from a student at Hult International Business School in San Francisco, asking if I would be interested in sponsoring her for a summer internship. I say regretfully because I’m not regularly in an office and up until the pandemic, the assumption I made was that an intern would benefit the most from an office-based environment, so I never sponsored one. To my surprise, she said, “That’s OK, I’m planning to work from Italy!”. That’s how Helena Trentino and now her sister Flaminia came to join us, and it has been a joy. Similarly, our customer success lead, Jacora Kiser, has used the flexibility of remote work to build up our systems and get our act together without the strain of finding and keeping a place in some of the most expensive real estate markets in the country.
That being said, we all did think a face-to-face would help accelerate our progress, so voila, our first team offsite will feature everyone getting together and figuring out where we go from here.
Hybrid teaching is the worst of both worlds
We’ve learned that you can make in-person teaching work (and now that we are back it has almost a magical quality, perhaps because Columbia has a fabulous new campus and the classrooms are state-of-the-art). We’ve learned that you can make virtual teaching work, but it’s very different than in-person. The timing is different, you need to organize discussions differently, the chat is terrific and I personally love the “mute” button!
What I think we’ve also learned is that hybrid teaching is the worst of both worlds. You don’t get the physical cues and feedback from real people, and it’s nearly impossible to make sure the people beaming in are included.
Things I started during the pandemic that I don’t want to stop now
My “Friday Fireside Chat” series was, to me, a way of creating community, fostering conversation and sharing ideas in a format that was accessible to everyone. My chat guests are a star-studded roster of thinkers, writers, entrepreneurs, and all-around interesting people of all kinds. Now that we’re back on the road, I’ve cut them back to once every other week, but they have been a real highlight of the pandemic for me.
I’ve also started a weekly newsletter (this one) that I enjoy putting together to spark thinking. Hopefully the schedule won’t get so packed that I must consider cutting back on these as well.
Another surprise - the seldom mentioned beneficiaries of virtual work
Our daughter has a friend with a disability that doesn’t affect her work at all, and isn’t visible on a Zoom screen, although it is in person. She has said it’s been life-changing not to feel like an “other” and not to have to spend emotional time or energy on other people’s reactions to it. It makes you think of how much of an equalizer the virtual interaction has been and how we could take advantage of it to help people who might otherwise be marginalized thrive.
We have an opportunity to be more mindful of the decisions we make now
The pandemic led many of us to realize that we weren’t being very imaginative about questioning our assumptions about how things get done or what kind of work we want to do and in what way. We have the opportunity now. Let’s take it.
Meanwhile, at Valize
Super excited that the team is coming together this week to brainstorm and plan what’s next. We’re crisping up our SparcStarter advisory program, a short 60 day project aimed at rapidly enhancing the ability of clients to accelerate the progress of an innovation project by applying the discovery driven growth methodology. We are sorting out the Sparchub software offering – software that is a tool that makes the mechanics of discovery driven growth a lot easier. And we’re nearly celebrating our first cohort completing the Customer Insight program, which is on line with live office hour sessions with me. The first group has been very enthusiastic and we’re going to be assembling a new cohort in the fall. Do reach out if you’d like to learn more about any of this.