From my vantage point of speaking with around a dozen leaders from different industries every week since the pandemic began, I’ve concluded that we’re at the end of Phase 1 and the beginning of Phase 2 of what it means to live and work in this new world.
Phase 1 has been the “reinvention” phase where leaders have been focused on figuring out new ways to keep their businesses running at some basic level. On the home front, many of us have been getting used to being on video conferences for a good part of the day while dealing with barking dogs and competing for bandwidth with our spouse and kids. Phase 2 is just beginning as many of the leaders I’m talking with are starting to think about what I’d call the “emergence” phase. As in, we’re emerging from the initial shock of all the change we’ve experienced and are now beginning to ask, “OK, how are we going to do this for months on end?”
Phase 3, aka “the new normal”, will eventually get here, but we’re still a long way from that. Right now, we’re dealing with the beginning of Phase 2 which is what the late, great change management guru, William Bridges, described as “the neutral zone.” In his classic book, Managing Transitions, Bridges pointed out that there are three phases of major change – the ending, the neutral zone, and the beginning. That order may seem out of sequence, but it’s intentional. Bridges’ point was that before anything new can begin, something else has to end, but you don’t just flip from the end of the old state to the beginning of the new. The neutral zone is that space of time in between the end and the beginning where the new rules aren’t yet clear and we’re feeling our way forward.
Sound familiar? That’s because you’re now living and working in the neutral zone, otherwise known as Phase 2. An era very clearly ended when many of us started working from home two months ago and we’ve just spent the last eight weeks acknowledging that ending and keeping things going while we did. That was Phase 1. We still don’t have nearly enough information to fully visualize Phase 3, which is OK because we’re not even close to being there anyway. That leaves us in Phase 2 – the neutral zone. What is the work of leadership in this phase?
I’d argue that you could sum up a big part of the Phase 2 work as reimagination. The neutral zone is the phase of the change curve when we should be thinking about what’s next and not just what’s now.
Here are three things you can do to lead that shift:
Move your Agendas from “To Do” to “What If?” – The urgency of the reinvention phase that we’re ending now has naturally led to a lot of agendas that are filled with “to do’s.” There’s just been a ton of stuff to get done in order to keep things going. The emergence work of Phase 2 will require more “What if?” agendas to give everyone the mental space needed to reimagine the why’s, what’s and how’s of the work. The questions posed in “What if” meetings should probably include ones like:
- What if we were starting this over from scratch, how would we do it?
- What if we stopped doing that, what could happen?
- What if we had to do this for a couple of years, what would we change?
Cast a Broader Net – Questions like those I just raised probably highlight the fact that no one leader or small group of leaders is going to have all the answers. That’s why it’s vitally important to start casting a broader net as you start the Phase 2 of reimagining what the future will look like. You can consult customers, partners and experts from outside if that’s helpful, but you should most definitely engage the people in your organization who are closer to the customers and the day to day work. Tap into their perspective, creativity and entrepreneurial spirit by creating processes that solicit and incorporate their input.
Gather Data and Run Small Tests – A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on how to take tangible action in the midst of a VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – environment. The starting points on dealing with uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are to gather data and information, identify some subset opportunities and then run some small tests that you can learn from. That is perfect for the neutral zone Phase 2 work of reimagination. Collecting lessons learned and getting your team (however large or small) involved in that process will bring the beginning of Phase 3 – the beginning of the new normal – into focus a little faster and with more clarity.
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