Don’t Be Paralyzed by Positive Thinking

Posted 08.04.2020

I’m observing (virtually, of course) more and more leaders who are short-termers. By that, I don’t mean that they’re not long for their jobs. What I mean is that they’re not looking far enough out into the future. At the beginning of the pandemic, this probably made sense. As I wrote back in May, the first eight weeks or so of the quarantine era were about reinventing work processes so people could work from home. None of us had a lot of visibility into what was going to happen next because none of us had experience with a global pandemic. Now (as I write this in early August 2020), we’re all approaching about six months of experience with one. And, yet, I’m still seeing a lot of leaders who aren’t really thinking about or prepping for the longer term. It’s almost like they’re paralyzed by the positive thinking pattern of “It’s going to get better.” Of course, we all hope and believe it’s going to get better but there’s a lot of runway between here and the next normal and it’s time for leaders to start preparing for the range of possible outcomes of what that normal could look like.

In that May post I mentioned, I wrote that after the reinvention phase of the WFH quarantine, the next was going to be reimagination and that the work of that phase was to start asking a lot of “What if?” questions. Around that same time, I was leading an online conversation with a group of senior leaders in a global corporation and asked them to consider a number of “What if?” questions. It was when I asked, “What if we had to operate this way for another year or two?” that they kind of threw up on me. The question was too painful to consider.

Well, Google has just announced that their employees aren’t going back to the office before July 2021 at the earliest. In other words, about a year from now. Google is a lot of things but one thing it’s not is stupid. Do you think its decision might be a leading indicator of where things are going to be for the rest of us? I do. Let’s say, for instance, that the best-case scenarios come true and we have a vaccine by the end of the year. Hooray for what would be a truly unprecedented scientific achievement. But then what? In the U.S., we’ll have about 350 million people to vaccinate and around 7 billion worldwide. Has there been anything so far to suggest that that’s going to be a quick and easy process? For those just tuning in, the answer would be no. It’s going to be complicated, messy and take a while before the world is safe from COVID even with a vaccine. In the meantime, business has to get done. How are you going to do it?

Here are five steps to get you moving:

First, stop being the frog in the pot of water. You know what I’m talking about – the old story about the way you boil a frog is to put it in a pot of cool water and gradually turn up the heat. It’s getting hotter in there. Jump the hell out of the pot and really start preparing for a different future.

Second, create the space for it. Imagination requires white space on the calendar and in the brain. Neither of those are accessible when you’re in “to-do” mode clicking from one Zoom meeting to the next. Times like these are the classic juxtaposition between urgent and important. Create some space for the important work of reimagining the future before it becomes completely urgent.

Third, consider different scenarios. This brings me back to the “What if?” questions. There are three I’d suggest starting with:

  • What if we have the best-case scenario six months from now?
  • What if we have the worst-case scenario six months from now?
  • What if we have the most likely scenario six months from now?

Fourth, cast a broader net. You and your closest colleagues may not feel qualified to answer those three questions because you don’t have enough information. You’re not alone; no one does. Mitigate the lack of information by casting a broader net. Read broadly and read trusted sources. Talk with customers, talk with any outside experts you can connect with, talk with the people in your organization who are closest to the action. What’s their take on the best-case, worst-case and most likely scenarios?  Ask why they think what they think. Then, create your own theories of the case based on the information and insights you gather. Theories of the case aren’t truth but they’re better than not having an informed point of view. That informed point of view is what will give you more confidence in making decisions and taking actions.

Fifth, look for what’s common and what’s unique. As you consider your three scenarios, look for common denominator factors that pull through the best, worst and most likely cases. What steps have you already taken to address those that can be leveraged further? What else do you need to do to address situations that are almost certainly going to occur? Conversely, what are the most important factors that are unique to each of the three scenarios? What small tests or experiments can you run now at a low cost that could better position you for full scale deployments later?

There’s nothing simple about leading during a pandemic but it can be helpful to everyone to keep things as simple as possible. These five steps may be a good place to start. If nothing else, they’ll help you avoid being paralyzed by positive thinking.

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