Originally published in The Adaptation Advantage: Let Go, Learn Fast and Thrive in the Future of Work, by Heather E. McGowan and Chris Shipley, with a Foreword by Thomas L. Friedman.
The Coronavirus Global Pandemic Accelerates the Future of Work
For more than a decade, we have talked about accelerated change. More than any other factor, the pace of change in technology, the economy, and society are reshaping the future of work. Yet even as forward-thinking leaders have pondered effects of accelerated change on their organizations, actual transformation has been, paradoxically, slow.
That is, until now.
If the future of work requires restructured workplaces, redefined roles, rapid learning, and reserves of trust—and it does, organizations are being challenged to do all that and more as they address the novel coronavirus pandemic. While we have long spoken about VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) environments, we are finally and undoubtedly facing one, and it is changing everything
In the span of a few weeks, the world’s economy traveled a path from cautious observation and common-sense health advisories to massive cancelations, business shutdowns, and work from home mandates. Companies large and small are hustling to virtualize business operations as social distancing continues to be the best practice to “flatten the curve” of contagion.
Coronavirus, it turns out, might be the great catalyst for business transformation.
In fact, where we once saw the future of work unfolding over years, we now believe that with coronavirus as an accelerant, everything we and others have predicted about the future of work will unfold in months. So how can we cope with so much change, so quickly?
In The Adaptation Advantage (Wiley, April 2020), we posited that the best defense in a rapidly shifting world of work is an Agile Learning Mindset, a way of thinking and being that stays open to the opportunity of new inputs, learning quickly and “unlearning” just as fast. So how do you adopt an Agile Learning Mindset?
The Agile Learning Mindset
In order to operate in an accelerating world that demands continual adaptation, we need a mindset outfitted to navigate change. That agile learning mindset contains four components: agency, agility, adaptability, and awareness.
Agency, in social science parlance, is the capacity to act independently and to make choices for oneself. Some describe agency as the opposite of powerlessness. Navigating a rapidly shifting future of work will require the agency to learn and adapt quickly, understanding explicitly that learning is your responsibility. Connect that agency with purpose, curiosity, or motivational drive to fuel your learning and exploration.
Agility, and specifically learning agility, is the ability to both learn and unlearn. It is founded in your own learning style to optimize how you take in new information, form new knowledge, and let go of information that is no longer useful. It is flexibility, nimbleness, and responsiveness. Agility includes your ability to pivot not only to take in new information, but also to deliver value when old processes and business models begin to fail, and new ones are required.
Adaptability is so central to the agile mindset that we made it the centerpiece of this book’s title. Charles Darwin is thought to have said (though no evidence conclusively ties him to the words), “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, but the most adaptable.” In work as in life, then, evolutionary success belongs to those who can most readily adapt. Adaptability enables us to navigate ambiguous situations and work through challenges even when not all the information is clear or even known. Professor Jeff LePine’s delineates between adaptability and flexibility, “Flexibility is the ability to pivot from one tool in your toolbox to another or from one approach to another. Adaptability requires you add something. Adaptability may require you to drop that tool and forge a new one or drop that method, unlearn it and develop an entirely new one.”
Awareness starts with an understanding of self. Self-awareness and your sense of personal identity are essential to engage meaningfully in work. Writing in “Collaboration Overload” for Harvard Business Review, researchers Rob Cross, Reb Rebele, and Adam Grant identified an increase of 50% or more in collaborative activities at work over the past two decades. Their conclusion: Work is now conclusively a social act. Awareness is both self and social awareness as well as market awareness. When the pace of change was slower and, as a result, business models lasted longer, one could successful hold a job without fully understanding the business model of the entity for which they engaged. No longer. Pivoting from one business model to the next is simply part of work and, as a result, we all need to understand both how our organizations create value and how we, as individuals, contribute to that value creation. Self-awareness and market awareness may be the most important and difficult to master aspects of the agile mindset.
Agile Mindset in Action
Search-engine giant Google set out to discover what made for a high-performing team, hoping they might even be able to create an algorithm to optimize future teams. What they found surprised them. The researchers originally thought that the best teams would be those comprised of the most outstanding individuals. Instead, they learned that “who is on a team matters much less than how team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions.”
To perform well in the collaborative workplace, then, we need the high levels of self-awareness that enable us to productively contribute in teams.
We also need great situational or market awareness. You will no longer have a job processing just a piece of work; you will need to know how that work fits into the broader organization, from product through business model. You will need to understand how your organization creates and captures value, and how your activities contribute to that value creation. If you understand this and can continually learn and adapt to contribute meaningfully to that value creation, you will never have to look for a job because you will continually make opportunities happen for yourself.
The Enablers: Uniquely Human Skills
What many people describe—and often discount—as soft skills are the uniquely human skills that are the positive enablers throughout your life and work. These good human skills make life and work far easier. From collaboration, empathy, and social skills to entrepreneurial skills, these social competencies are less vulnerable to being displaced by AI and automation.”
Organizations from the World Economic Forum to the Institute for the Future enumerate these skills and their value in the future of work. Ultimately, these skills all center on social and emotional intelligence, creativity, communication, judgment, sensemaking, and empathy. And they are all fundamental to the adaptation advantage. We place these skills at the waterline in the Iceberg Model because while they are sometimes evident and explicit on the job, they are also quite often the invisible enablers of your best work.
Both PricewaterhouseCoopers Annual CEO surveys and IBM Institute for Business Ventures Global Surveys are finding that the social or behavioral skills gap is now greater than the technical skills gap. Specifically, the IBM surveys saw a shift in concern about a shortage of technical skills in 2016 to worry about a lack of social skills in 2018. The number-one skill in demand? Adaptability.
ABL: Always Be Learning
In the cult classic film Glengarry Glen Ross, Alec Baldwin exhorts his salesmen to “always be closing.” In today’s world of work, we think organizations should “always be learning” because, as business theorist Arie de Geus and Peter Senge both said, “The ability to learn faster than your competitors may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.
Heather E. McGowan, Future-of-work strategist