Cut the Clutter, Drive Change: A Lesson from Crisis University

Vikas Joshi
April 17, 2020

Most business leaders struggle to create a momentum for their change initiatives. Then a crisis comes along, and suddenly, things start moving at a surprising speed. After endless debates on our work-from-home policy for two years, along came the Coronavirus and it took us only two days to send all employees home with laptops. After innumerable failed resolutions to limit outside food, within the snap of a finger, many of us are back to home cooking!

What creates such momentum for change? What can we learn from here that we could apply in our business leadership and personal lives?

There are important lessons to draw from Crisis University, the school in which all of us are currently enrolled thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t use the term ‘Crisis University’ lightly. The foremost function of a university is to create a learning environment. The COVID-19 pandemic has created such a learning environment for business leaders.

Let’s start with a couple of stories that illustrate how a crisis suddenly spurs change that has been in the making for several years.

Telehealth Is Suddenly In

Consider the tectonic shifts that are underway in the healthcare systems around the world. One US health care leader summarized this succinctly: We advanced 5 years in 48 hours. In 90 days, we may advance 20 years.

The stats from his healthcare system (hospitals) tell the whole story: In the entire year of 2019, they did 2000 telehealth visits. Last week, in 5 days, they completed over 20,000 telehealth consults! Telehealth became just the right thing to do overnight. From a topic for digital med nerds, telemedicine is now a profit center.

Learning Has Moved Online Overnight

University after university asked students not to come back from the spring break. The message was: ‘Stay home, we will teach you online’. After decades of evangelizing, building and promoting technology for online learning at Harbinger, this message sounds like an echo of ours. Schools, community colleges, universities, continuing education provides, trainers, corporate learning departments, and other purveyors of education and training are all in a hurry to move completely online.

This is not just a temporary shift to comply with the shelter-at-home guidelines. Many education and training establishments are viewing this as a potential transformation of their business models. Once people figure out the benefits and convenience of online learning, their current models will not sustain indefinitely. Change is inevitable, and it is coming fast.

What is going on here? Why is it that organizations dither for years over adopting a change, only to embrace change smoothly when a crisis comes along?

Crisis Takes Away Friction

The biggest challenge change leaders encounter is the resistance from nearly everyone else. Shareholders want you to hold risk to a minimum, and yet produce rewards. Manufacturing is not sure how long it will take to make the new widget. Marketing is not sure it will sell. Employees don’t know that they can learn the new skills and adapt. And, as if all of this was not enough, the bureaucracy of your company loves to nurture the myth of permanence, blissfully unaware of an ever-changing world. All this friction wears you out.

What then happens during a crisis? How do some decisions move fast when the boat is about to sink? Clearly, at least in some cases, it seems easier to get people to act in a concerted way to bring about change. It seems that crisis takes the friction away.

How Does Friction Go Away?

You may have heard theories about behaviors under crisis. A commonly held view is that when collective survival is at stake, people fall in line. Everyone recognizes that there is no alternative if they must survive. This automatically induces alignment to change. The fear of survival basically drives a sense of urgency. Once there is a shared sense of urgency, collective decisions move faster.

I find this view questionable. Fear and urgency can also lead to panic. People may become distrustful and look out for themselves. They may act as though they are on board with your change initiative. However, in reality, they may be fence-sitters or free-riders, not engaged actively in problem-solving.

Fear and urgency may be necessary, but not sufficient to explain what really happens during a crisis that drives change without friction. We need a different perspective. That perspective revolves around clarity.

In large scale crises, we realize at once that many day-to-day concerns occupying our minds are superfluous. Once you clear the clutter, clarity emerges. Once the Titanic collides with an iceberg, there is little point in arguing over how to arrange deck chairs. When leaders clearly communicate the magnitude of crisis to their teams, the crisis focuses attention on the essential, leaving the rest into background. It is amazing what a team of clutter-free minds can do.

An entrepreneur friend once said: “Limit things that reduce focus.” How insightful! To drive concerted action, one must clear the clutter and cut to the chase. That is how decisions move fast. That is also how a large-scale crisis accelerates change. Crisis cuts the clutter and produces clarity. Clarity takes away friction, creates focus, and drives change.

Clearing Clutter to Drive Change in Personal Life

The business lesson about clarity from Crisis University is equally applicable in personal lives. The COVID-19 crisis has forced many people to stay at home for weeks on end. In India, we just extended the three-week nationwide lockdown further by a few weeks. There is no going out, no guests to receive, and no going to factory. To some people, social isolation of this kind is a great opportunity for self-discovery. It may be something you have wanted to do all along, and the time to do it may be now.

A friend recently called to check on me during this time. We talked for a while and then the conversation turned to his experience of the past three weeks away from work. He said, “You know you have been on a treadmill only after you get off it for a while.” I asked, “That’s a pretty simple thing to realize. Why did it take a nationwide lockdown of three weeks for you to discover that?”  His answer was simple: “When the river is muddy you see no fish. You have to let the water clear first.”

So, there we go. Lesson on clarity from Crisis University: Cut the clutter, drive change!