I don’t really like the term “new normal,” because I think it’s dangerous and it lulls us into a false sense of a new certainty rather than preparing us for ongoing change. I very much prefer the term ”next normal,” as I think it conveys the necessarily transient nature of many of our personal and organizational responses to the dramatic and changing times during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As we enter a post-COVID-19 world, the term “new normal” is undeniably popular. The CB Insights chart below (from May 20, 2020) shows that the use of the words “new normal” has exploded in earnings calls since March 2020. We at Info-Tech are also not immune. Responding to our markets, we have released much research on how to embrace and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic using this “new normal” branding (see our COVID-19 Resource Center).
Source: CB Insights
While the term “new normal” is now clearly in common use, what is this new normal, is it here to stay, and if so, how long is it here to stay?
And why am I so worried about this seemingly widely used and understood term?
What is wrong with the “new normal”?
Dictionary.com provides the following definition for the word “normal”: “serving to establish a standard.” And there is the heart of my concern: each of our current new normals is not a new standard or permanent way of working and will change again. They are, however, a response to the changing circumstances we face, which are likely to change again. What happens post lockdown? Will there be a second wave of infections? How must businesses change in a socially distanced world?
While we have each enacted many new normal responses, the new ways of working and interacting in response to these current circumstances and requirements are not necessarily permanent. Many will need to change again as circumstances and stakeholder requirements change, and they cannot be described as an enduring new standard. The way we do things will continue to change in line with the circumstances and context that we find ourselves in.
I saw a tweet last week about the many changes we are facing as we respond to the COVID-19 pandemic that said something about how we are all grieving the loss of our attachment to the "myth of certainty."
My fear is that "new normal" rhetoric will allow us to merely create a modified myth of certainty in our current responses rather than reflecting and preparing ourselves and our organizations for the next changes that will surely come.
Thankfully, the majority of IT departments and organizations responded exceptionally well to major changes like the sudden imposition of lockdown and social distancing measures as civic responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. We observed across our clients how IT organizations and the IT services they provide were at the heart of organizational responses allowing people to communicate and work remotely.
What then must I do?
As stated earlier, I much prefer the term “next normal,” as each change we make is merely our next standard and "next normal" conveys the unspoken meaning that we expect other changes.
Having somewhat mastered this version of normal, how do we prepare for our next normal? I believe that a learning mindset and agility are key.
A learning mindset will allow us to learn from ourselves and others
Learn from ourselves: By conducting structured retrospectives of our actions and our teams’ actions, we can review what worked well and what didn’t, allowing us to leverage one and improve the other. How can we respond to areas that didn’t work well or, upon reflection, areas where we “got lucky” while the capability is actually fragile? The only certainty is that more change is coming. Info-Tech’s CIO Strategy for COVID-19 provides a useful framework to review responses to date.
Learn from others: By engaging with others through direct interaction and/or research, we can learn from their mistakes and successes. As the “how-to” consulting company, Info-Tech is continually developing practical research to assist our members. Members can learn from our research and from each other. In particular, Info-Tech is publishing research to assist our clients' pandemic responses in the COVID-19 Resource Center and Cost Management Center.
Personal and organizational agility will allow us to change or pivot effectively
Agility or organizational pivots: Erik Ries (Author of The Lean Startup) describes organizational pivots as a “change in strategy without a change in vision.” For example, some organizations that had not previously supported remote work as a strategy found that they could successfully deliver on the organizational vision while all staff were working remotely, and cafés that had only served diners at tables pivoted to deliver the same food to their local community. The essence of a pivot is that one foot remains on the ground while the other moves the body (organization) in a new direction, delivering stability with change.
So what’s next?
Nobody knows what’s next, but an individual or organization that has prepared for change has less to fear than one that is merely hoping it won’t come.