The Great Reset series focuses on how to process and lead in the COVID era, and what that means for the future of our businesses — both professionally and personally. The first installment emphasized that leaders and enterprises who skillfully navigate this test of humanity will be the ones who adapt quickly to a disruptor mindset. In this installment, we’ll dig into the importance of ambidexterity, and outline the steps leaders must take to effectively manage The New Now.
Navigating the COVID era means mastering sudden adaptation. Social dislocation and systems turmoil have taken hold in every aspect of our lives, forcing us to change our routines and reevaluate our goals and expectations in real-time. And, unsurprisingly, these waves of upheaval have triggered a reset on most business operations and on commercial assumptions. We are all grappling to adjust to The New Now.
We are faced with an unprecedented challenge during this disruption. For years leaders have been told that if they are unable to lead ourselves, they cannot possibly lead others. But what does that look like right now? It is a struggle to process this globally shared experience that is simultaneously isolating and deeply personal. In a time when we need to be connected and certain, we may feel disconnected and unsure. On top of that, theory and practice are in constant collision. Navigating the unknowable and uncontrollable future of our businesses is no longer some academic or design-thinking challenge, it is reality. The future is no longer distant, it is right here right now. Hemingway captured this contradiction brilliantly in The Sun Also Rises: When a character is asked, “How did you go bankrupt?” the response is, “Gradually and then suddenly.”
Demanding control during this time of next-level upheaval simply will not work. Instead, we must cultivate ambidexterity.
Ambidextrous leaders are operators and innovators at the same time, and they encourage their followers to be the same. This style of leadership does not come naturally to everyone, but learning to master it is crucial to growth, and it must be prioritized and reactivated in the COVID era. Many corporate leaders are expert operators who drive efficiency and optimization, but not innovation and growth. Becoming an ambidextrous leader requires nurturing new ideas that address consumer pain points using the mindset and tools of a creator. Especially now, in this frightening and fluid new world, business leaders must learn to operate and create.
So what is the first step toward leading ambidextrously? How do we elevate ourselves and our teams in this moment?
Acceptance is not surrendering. Acceptance means embracing The New Now as our shared reality, not a temporary dilemma to be endured, eventually returning to past goals and expectations. Acceptance is a crucial element of thoughtful agility. It empowers a team to set down the past, and move forward, unrestrained, into the future. It draws a circle around the knowable that helps us to identify the unknowable, giving us clarity on what we can control and what is beyond our control. Without that clarity, we are unable to set a path into the future. With that clarity, business leaders can make decisions based on new commercial truths, react and pivot quickly, reactivate and discover new growth, and lead their teams with conviction. They can become truly ambidextrous.
Accepting The New Now also requires us to acknowledge that past precedent is no longer a future predictor of business behaviors and outcomes. Leaders must have flexible mindsets around beliefs about market and consumer signals and shifts. It’s time to let go of past commitments and re-align our companies to a new-base business reality.
Businesses across the globe are in the throes of acceptance right now. In March, Nike’s innovation team started designing medical face shields and lenses for air-purifying respirators. Within weeks, factories in Oregon and Missouri began churning out the shields and lenses for hospitals. General Motors has reconfigured an Indiana automobile components plant to produce more than 30,000 crucial ventilators. Hair color company Madison Reed saw a 1,200% jump in orders as people across the country lost access to their hairdressers. In just one week, the founder of Madison Reed quadrupled the size of the customer service team from 30 to 115 people to support increased customer demand. If you had asked these teams a year ago to design and deliver this quickly, they would have said it was impossible. Necessity truly is the mother of invention, and acceptance of The New Now breeds crucial innovation.
The second step is to Shift.
Once we have accepted The New Now, business leaders must prepare to accept and embrace The New Future. This is where we practice ambidextrous leadership by shifting focus away from the knowable and controllable and toward the unknowable and uncontrollable. This is where we embrace discomfort and dig into the challenge of transforming our companies in two key areas: growth and capability.
The third step is to Accelerate.
To reactivate growth, we will need to innovate into radically changed markets to address new, often sudden shifts in customer needs and problems. We are living in a fragile moment of intense change that requires us to lean into these rare opportunities to discover The New Future. Enterprises must abandon the familiar model of Total Addressable Markets (TAM), where past budgets and behaviors existed pre-disruption. We must shift now to a Total Addressable Problem (TAP) view of the world, where new needs, behaviors, and budgets guide our choices. Leaders should be experimenting and testing ferociously to understand the new TAP view of the world and dig into the problems that people are facing right now. Instead of thinking about the past, leaders must focus on present problems their enterprises are uniquely positioned to solve.
The fourth step is to Transform.
To transform enterprises’ ability to re-activate growth, we will need to adopt and embed new systems that transform teams and organizations with adaptability and speed. Leaders must cultivate resilience of growth in both capability and culture. Tackling all of this during the COVID era takes empathy and courage. Fortunately, we can see courage, innovation, and exploration all around us. Organizations and individuals are creating ingenious solutions to problems we never knew we would face. In a recent interview with National Public Radio, historian Yuval Noah Harari pointed out that we’re currently witnessing “… social experiments on a massive scale that will change the world. We can’t predict what will happen because the main thing is that we have so many choices. It’s not like there is just one predetermined outcome to this epidemic.”
The choice we face means empowerment. If we allow ourselves to stall out, we will let down ourselves, our people, and our companies. Instead, we can choose how we navigate through The New Now, and we can choose how we capture The New Future. There’s no roadmap. This gives us the opportunity to create growth mindsets, systems, and cultures that transcend traditional planning and efficiency. We can embrace resilience and the capabilities to lead through uncertainty, and rise to meet the world’s new challenges.
Co-Founder + CEO, Bionic