8 February 2021

Positive Change Happens in Chaos

Positive Change Happens in Chaos

by Eamonn Eaton

Over the last number of months, I have found that a number of my coaching conversations have centred on how individuals and organisations are reacting to or responding to the challenges of the pandemic crisis. This has been a theme that has dominated our own personal and work lives for almost a year now and is a topic of conversation no matter what role, organisation, sector or geography we work in. It overtook us all so quickly at the start of 2020 that no one had time to plan or really think strategically about what was happening. We all found ourselves operating ‘in the moment’. This reminds me of two quotes:

‘There ain’t no rules around here. We’re trying to accomplish something’

Thomas Edison


‘If you want to be productive, get disorganised.’

Simon Caulkin

The pandemic certainly created a situation where disorganisation was the norm and we all had to tear up the rule book.

The Pandemic and Change

What is unusual about this crisis is that we were all experiencing it simultaneously and it is global. It is impacting our teams, customers, suppliers, strategic partners, markets, plans, strategies, business models and the fabric of our organisations. During these conversations, one underlying theme kept emerging. Change, driven by the pandemic, has been the greatest agent of organisational change many of us will experience in our careers. And as senior business and HR leaders, it is something we need to evaluate and respond to in a planned and measured way.

Learning from the Past

Reflecting on this change encouraged me to revisit a book I contributed to some years ago with London Business School. In their book, ‘Uncommon Sense, Common Nonsense’, Jules Goddard and Tony Eccles of London Business School examine why some organisations consistently outperform others. They identify a series of factors that align to create a high performing culture. What brought me back to this book was a particular case study that always stuck in my mind. Imagine if responding to and thriving in crisis could transform an organisation from its steady-state culture to a more vibrant culture with more of the characteristics of a high performing organisation. They cite the example of Rolls Royce Aerospace, where circumstances transformed the culture of the organisation.

Default to Response Culture Shift

Rolls Royce Aerospace had a ‘default culture’ that was rational, structured, process-centric, rules-based, risk-averse and compliant. When hit by an unexpected crisis the organisation became emotional, spontaneous, problem-centric, improvisational, courageous and entrepreneurial.

A new culture had emerged driven by context, situation, external factors and a clear imperative for everyone to work together to overcome the crisis situation. Crisis flipped the organisation culture on its head, and created a ‘response culture’ that would have been almost impossible to achieve through an orthodox culture change programme.

This is exactly what’s happened to our own organisations as we all pivoted to respond in real-time to the challenges of the pandemic. In a very condensed period of time, individuals at all levels in organisations have had to step outside their comfort zone, think outside the box, challenge norms and orthodoxies and take calculated risk to respond to the challenge of crisis in real-time.

Stepping Back to Take Stock

Through my conversations with senior business and HR leaders, they could all describe the speed and scale of change. They appreciated the extraordinary response of their teams and colleagues at all levels in their organisation. They were proud of what they had all achieved and how they had maintained service for their customers, irrespective of whether they had found themselves thrust into the front line, working remotely or having to close their business for periods of time. What was clear was that very few had taken the time to reflect on the scale of culture change that had occurred in their organisations and identified the shift that had taken place from their ‘Default’ to ‘Response’ culture.

Holding On or Letting Go

From my experience in talking to many people across a range of sectors one of the first things to think about is – What elements of your new culture do you want to permanently embed in the organisation and what elements do you want to let go.

Looking back to your old default culture, what elements do you need to regain and again which do you want to let go permanently. Very few had started to work out the combination that will create and support their high performing organisational culture for the future.

Pandemic Culture Change Stories

When I discussed this with a retailing organisation, one particular challenge came to light. Their Talent Management process had identified their future talent using a typical 9 box model. They had identified future talent on a combination of past performance and future potential. What was clear was the criteria used was no longer valid. The crisis had changed them. Individuals who did not feature on the talent matrix had risen to the top in crisis and others who were future stars had not done as well. The culture change demanded a complete reworking of the organisation’s performance and potential definitions and a recalibration of their talent pipeline.

A financial services organisation had shifted from an office-based to remote workforce overnight. What they realised was that at the start of 2020, goals had been set with a strong emphasis on performance. Managers and team leaders were focused on lifting performance standards with an emphasis on delivering quality of service to customers. The crisis had shifted the focus to productivity. Management of productivity with a remote workforce changes the conversation from ‘How are they doing’ to ‘What are they doing’ and handling customer volumes. Their goal setting and performance review process needed to be changed to reflect this.

The supermarket sector experienced major change and found themselves as a pillar of the nation’s front line response infrastructure. Store managers were faced with operating safely for customers and staff in a very fluid and volatile environment. Reflecting on the impact of this on their culture, it became clear that store managers had changed from people and operations managers to leaders and problem solvers. Realising this is the first step to making these changes stick as part of sustaining a high performing culture going forward.

From a HR perspective, one of the biggest changes is the rapid movement from a rules-based policy-driven model and control culture, to one of flexibility to respond and make empowered decisions within a framework. In conversation with a senior member of the HR team in a semi-state organisation, we discussed how they have transformed their workforce into a remote, flexible hours, distributed workforce overnight, something that would have take years of board papers, presentations, consultation, stakeholder management and C-suite decision making. Sustaining the rapid empowered decision making that occurred in crisis requires changes in organisational governance to sustain this as a positive part of their culture for the future.

3 Steps for 2021

The impact of the pandemic is permanent. It has stretched many of our organisational cultures to the limit. I believe it is critical that we see and build on the positive aspects of what’s been achieved and don’t let the culture elastic band snap back to where it was before the crisis stretched it. Based on my experience, if I was a senior business leader or HR professional, there are 3 steps that I would take:

  1. Identify the dimensions that have changed in your shift from ‘default’ to ‘response’ culture
  2. Agree on which new dimensions you need to embed and which old ones you need to recover
  3. Build an action plan of changes needed in areas such as governance, policy, procedures, ways of working etc. to build and sustain a high-performance culture that your business needs for the future.

Call to Action

As we start into 2021 this is the perfect time for HR & Business Leaders to use the crisis to build a stronger organisational culture for the new future. At Harvest this is always a conversation we are willing to have and we are always interested to explore how we can do this together.

As our former colleague, Frank Rock always said:

‘Never waste a good crisis’.