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  • Writer's pictureGary Lloyd

5 lessons COVID-19 can teach us about change at work

I used to have to make the case that organisations, and the world of work, are more like ecosystems than machines. That no longer seem to be necessary. Regrettably, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it all too clear that our work and social lives sit within intertwined ecosystems.

Three ecosystem characteristics are now plain to see:

  • Interdependence.

  • Limits of control.

  • Unpredictability.

Unpredictability is often the product of the other two, but not always, especially when it comes to human behaviour. In any event, unpredictability deserves equal weight, as it usually it's what you end up dealing with. If you focus solely on the first two of the above, you can be seduced by the notion that you can create an accurate predictive model, like a mechanic. 

It would be wrong of me to comment on the actions of governments who are trying to deal with a unique health emergency. However, there are five lessons that the current crisis has highlighted that you can apply to the world of work when normality finds a new equilibrium.

1) When you want to make a change at work, invest time to think about the other things that will be affected or could constrain you: the interdependencies. This need not be complicated. Below is a picture, drawn relatively quickly, that describes the interdependencies for an airport hotel. It shows how you can quickly sketch out interdependencies, without formal notation or maths.

2) You will inevitably miss some interdependencies. You can mitigate that risk if you share your thinking with others or, better still, collaborate to draw this sort of picture. Still, you are never going to capture everything. So, when you introduce a change, be watchful for unintended consequences.

3) Many interdependencies will be outside your control. In fact, when you think about it, there's very little you can control, especially when it comes to human behaviour. Focus on what you can influence and how you can expand your area of influence. Again, watch out for unintended consequences.

4) Even when you've made an effort to understand the interdependencies and limits of control, your understanding will only be as robust as the assumptions you make. Find ways to test your assumptions as quickly and as cheaply as possible. If you are dealing with numbers, such as in a business case, averages can be misleading. Keep the ranges of outcomes visible and don't ignore outliers.

5) Unpredictability isn't just about interdependencies and limits of control. People are unpredictable. Not only do different people react to the same stimuli in different ways, but the same person also will respond differently at different times. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman says:

"Humans are unreliable decision makers; their judgments are strongly influenced by irrelevant factors, such as their current mood, the time since their last meal, and the weather.
Academic researchers have repeatedly confirmed that professionals often contradict their own prior judgments when given the same data on different occasions.
The unavoidable conclusion is that professionals often make decisions that deviate significantly from those of their peers, from their own prior decisions, and from rules that they themselves claim to follow."

For more thoughts about thinking like a gardener, not a mechanic, you can check out my blog. And look out my forthcoming book: Gardeners not Mechanics: how to cultivate change at work.


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