Monday 27 April 2020



A little over a year ago, I started to write this series about what organisations would need to survive and thrive in the 2020s. At the outset I didn’t imagine that the future requiring the responses I proposed would hit the world from the very first day of the 2020s.

COVID-19 forwarding us to the future

The global COVID-19 pandemic has produced a sudden and dramatic crisis unlike anything we have ever seen. These are times of great stress and uncertainty in a rapidly, day to day, changing environment.

The world as we knew it has changed, and never will be the same. Organisations must respond swiftly and effectively as they receive insights from this dynamic evolving situation. 

Unfortunately, the great challenge is not only about navigating the current crisis; we must also anticipate the post-pandemic landscape and be prepared for it.

I’ve always enjoyed William Gibson’s quote: ‘The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed ’. That unevenly distributed future gives visionaries the opportunity of taking the edge, while conservatives and laggards ride the long tail. 

This global event has dramatically shrunk the distribution of the future. Like it or not, COVID-19 is going to prematurely force all the changes organisations require to survive the 2020s – now. Those who snooze will lose to their more prepared competitors.

The Fluidity Concept

While considering a name for the transformation I address in this series, I took some concepts from cybernetics: ‘The Law of Requisite Variety’. In one of its most romantic forms, this theory suggests: The only way you can control your destiny is to be more flexible than your environment.” 

In a more pragmatic way, we can say that: ‘In order to deal properly with the diversity of problems the world throws at you, you need to have a repertoire of responses which is at least as nuanced as the problems you face’.

And the future for businesses I describe is, far from the monotony of many past centuries, vast, challenging, dynamic, flexible and ever-changing. The only effective response to deal with that is to have a fluid strategy. The recipe of most strategic books is to project the past to obtain a reasonable strategy for the future. But in the future I describe, such recipes will leave organisations for dead, if not severely undernourished. 

At the opening of my series I suggested:

‘Leaders of this era will require the courage and skills of explorers and pioneers to successfully navigate these unchartered roads. This is the time of tremendous risks and huge opportunities. This is the time of the FLUID ORGANISATION.’ 

Well my friends, we have forwarded to that future. Fluid times are here, now. 

Many of the concepts of the past chapters are centrally relevant these days.

In Chapter 4 - I'm a celebrity... Get me out of here! I discussed how underprepared we are for the new level of globalisation we are going to experience.

Unpredictable Global Event 

In Chapter 3 - Sleepwalking along the linear delusion,  I discussed how as  humans we are essentially linear machines. When confronted with something that doesn’t behave in a linear fashion, often we simply don't see it. It is too difficult for our poor brains to process and we normally react when it is too late.

Many Countries Reacted late to the Exponential Effect

In Chapter 1 - The new frontier, I discussed investments in technological innovations as the required response, and the need for reformulating operational models. While IT has traditionally been viewed as a supporting capability,  IT is now core to business value generation.

IT is at the Core of the Response

In Chapter 2 - Freedom for the robots! -, I suggested that productivity methodologies of the past two hundred years focused on turning humans into robots. As Peter Drucker once said: "So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work". I proposed that now is the time for organisations to encourage their employees with human qualities such as purposeful autonomy, empathy, experimentation, creativity, responsible freedom, and a strong and shared sense of purpose.

And my last three chapters explore how the 2020s will herald an era of a new breed of organisation, combining adaptive organisational design, supercharged culture, and courageous leadership. Reskilling and upskilling employees will be essential to allow them to co-create and own the required change. 

Responsible Freedom is Essential

The fluid transformation was all about understanding the tectonic shift in the business environment, becoming digital at the core, and leveraging talent in a completely different way. This has never been more necessary than now.

Changed Working Model

We are in the middle of a global unforeseen social experiment, shifting to full-time work from home. For a while, working remotely was predicted to be the future of work, but COVID-19 has imposed a depth and breadth that we never imagined.

There are many research-based advantages to working from home, including improved productivity, staff satisfaction and health, substantial savings of resources for individuals and businesses, time efficiency, local community benefits and a positive environmental impact.

While we’d prefer these advantages offered as an option and not a mandate, we have a chance to experiment with this new remote model, and purposefully design the new post-pandemic normal with new insights borne of this crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic will become a thing of the past, but working remotely won't. Our future working environment, whatever shape it has, will benefit those having the best adapted skills to thrive in digital remote environments.

Organisations should take this opportunity to give their teams the autonomy to self-organise, while encouraging their workforces to become the best digital employees possible.

Dancing in the Rain

As I described in Chapter 7 - The post-digital race!, most organisations instinctively respond to the ‘mammal’ model, where engagement and good experiences for customers (the emotional layer) have become top priorities across operating models. In the same way, when exposed to crises like this one, most organisations have the instinctive reaction any mammal would have.

Three Layers of Organisational Response

Most animals face the risk of being eaten. It's hard to pass on your genes when you're dead; therefore, the threat of predation imposes strong selective pressure on organisms. Fear and anxiety are psychological, physiological, and behavioural states induced in animals and humans by a threat to well-being or survival, either actual or perceived. It is characterised by specific behaviour patterns to facilitate coping with an adverse or unexpected situation. Reactions can include fleeing, hiding, or freezing from perceived traumatic events. Events like this one also ignite another level of fear, the fear of unknown.

Although fear-induced behaviour can increase an animal’s chances of surviving, it can also incur significant costs. 

The current crisis presents us with two options: to protect ourselves from the storm and wait until the weather clears, or to learn to dance in the rain. The first option, while the most instinctive, is riskiest since conditions will never be the same.Organisations must avoid falling into the mammal response, if they want to do more than merely survive. We must thrive, dancing in the rain.

Certainly, we must prepare for more difficult circumstances, and ensure that business continuity is bullet-proof, however, the gloom and doom (fear) response could be the most dangerous option. Every crisis presents opportunities, and a big crisis present big opportunities. The best action is to get into position to seize it.

Some organisations adopt a false sense of security in believing that a high level of efficiency equals a high level of future-proofing. Kodak, the photography giant, filed for bankruptcy when its internal processes were highly efficient. They missed the most important part of the future-proofing equation: the changing needs of their customers (in this case provoked by technology disruption).

When context changes, retreat might feel the safest option, but often it is just the opposite. Keeping an eye on how the future business landscape will be affected and adopting a combination of defensive/offensive strategies is always required. Only retreating, or defending existing territory, without responding to the quickly emerging trends of the future,  is surely the fastest way to disappear.

But this is not only about how we distribute our resources; it is also about our own mindset to navigate any crisis. Social psychology suggests that optimists are more likely to take charge and find ways to solve their problems than pessimists; optimism is a pillar of innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity.  These require resilience, experimentation and the understanding that many failed experiments lay along the pathway to success. 

Optimism helps us continue trudging into the unknown and muddy terrains, moving relentlessly forward despite the inevitable ups and downs.Optimism implies a vision that can see opportunity in adversity and cut a simple pathway through a complex course. It is what enables us to persist through our challenges and reach success on the other side. An optimistic attitude is essential to help us see positive outcomes despite existing circumstances.

There is only one way out: bold and forward.

Let’s dance in the rain !

Let's dance in the Rain!

Fluidity Now

Our external reality is fluid, and following the Law of Requisite Variety, organisations must become more dynamic than their environment or fail.The three essential pillars to succeed and be ready for the post pandemic reality are:
  1. Stay one step ahead of our customer. We must drastically rethink our customers’ experience. We must be nimble, agile and ready for constant and dynamic change in customer needs and behaviours.
  2. Reinvent the core. Seize the opportunities and manage the threats. We must proactively think about our business model, operating model and our talent model.
  3. Secure the right capabilities. This will probably be a combination of what we already do well and what we must learn to do well. Being digital at the core, with an empowered workforce, and courageous leadership are the essential basic elements for any organisation.


Summary of Chapter 1:

  • COVID-19 is going to prematurely force all the changes organisations require to survive the 2020s – now.
  • It is not time for fear and retreating. There is only one way out: bold and forward.
  • Stay one step ahead of your customer, reinvent the core and secure the right capabilities

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Sunday 15 September 2019



by Leonie Mitaxa

When I meet people at parties and social events and tell them I work as change management consultant, I’m often met with an expression of mild horror.

“Ohhh! That sounds unpleasant,” says my new friend. “After all, people hate change, right? People are resistant to change.”

I don’t believe this for a moment.

If ‘people hated change’ as the rhetoric goes, nobody would ever marry, move house, travel, divorce, quit their jobs or procreate.

In each example above – all major life changes – we have some degree of agency in making the decision. Which leads me to the theory that people don’t hate change; we simply hate change being imposed on us. And unfortunately, imposed change is often the case when it comes to change within organisations.

A Tale of Two Change Journeys

Let’s compare the following two change journeys of former clients of mine.

These two organisations wished to transition their workplaces from traditional, allocated workspace models to modern, flexible, activity based working models.

The first organisation took a common top-down approach to the change. They sent their executive team of four on a three day retreat to discuss the problems with their current workforce. Over three days of talking and lots of writing on whiteboards, they came up with the best solutions. They then came back and mandated to their employees in a formal town hall meeting (with very impressive and complicated presentation slides) exactly what they wanted to see from their staff in the future. Done! How easy was that?

The second organisation took a human-centred design approach to their change. From the very beginning, they engaged a broad representative sample of staff from across their organisation and took them on a co-design journey. 

Together they explored features of space, technology and culture that their employees believed would enable them to do their best work every day. This group then co-designed a workplace that would support the aspirations of employees. They continued to invite employees to participate in the creation of this workplace through focus groups, workshops, voting for their favourite features and continual feedback loops. 

Figure 1: Lead change, don't enforce it

Can you guess which approach was more successful in winning over the hearts and minds of staff? We know instinctively that it was the second, but most likely have more lived experiences similar to the first. 

Designing Change: a Human-Centred Approach

Almost all organisational change initiatives have an impact on its humans. And humans are weird: we are weird, scared, vulnerable, frustrated, sweet, kind, complicated, and a whole host of other things. To be effective agents for change, we can’t avoid this reality, even if doing so makes the planning phase easier.

In The Design of Business (2009), Roger Martin presents the Knowledge Funnel. He suggests that using the knowledge funnel when working in areas with a lot of unknowns (mysteries) allows organisations to develop strategies for understanding and solving those unknowns (heuristics). With deeper understanding they can develop responses (algorithms) to address those challenges effectively.

The Knowledge Funnel beautifully illustrates an effective approach to bringing about real, sustained change through human-centred design.

Figure 2: Roger Martin's Knowledge Funnel

The top section illustrates the apparent mess and chaos (or mystery) we encounter when we start exploring the fears, hopes and concerns of the humans impacted by the change we’re seeking to implement.

As we continue exploring those hopes and concerns, we progress into the middle section, heuristic, where we start to identify patterns and themes emerging from the chaos.

This stage challenges assumptions that we may have held in the beginning. It’s where insights emerge, leading to innovative solutions that are often missed in a top-down approach to planning change. These solutions can then be implemented smoothly in the final section, algorithm.

The end result of this approach is often simpler, more elegant, and more effective than a small group of executives might come up with on their own, as it identifies and addresses the real issues, not the most apparent ones.

Turning the knowledge funnel on its side illustrates that if we spend more time and energy upfront exploring the problems and challenging our assumptions, we can empower employees by bringing them along on the change journey. 

Figure 3: Change via movements get the mess and chaos over upfront, making for a smooth implementation of an effective, co-created solution

Such an approach takes humility and courage on behalf of an organisation’s leaders, but giving some ownership of the change to employees generates change via movements, rather than via mandates. Happily, it also makes for a much smoother implementation.

(It should be noted that this is not a linear, end-to-end process. It is important to continually loop back to the first stage of the funnel, seeking more mysteries to challenge one’s assumptions and ensure we are identifying and framing the right problems to solve.)

Turning the funnel on its other side illustrates what happens when we predefine problems and rush into solution mode. We make assumptions in our rush to solve the most apparent problem, and invest (sometimes heavily) in solutions that become messy and chaotic when implemented. Our solutions run into that “change resistance” by the poor humans impacted by our misguided decisions. 

Figure 4: Change via mandates run smoothly in the beginning, and get messy and chaotic during the implementation stage – when our assumptions are revealed as a solution to a problem that may not exist.

Inspiring your Change Ambassadors – the Power of Co-creation

In recent years, companies like Blockbuster Video and Borders, as well as players in the music and taxi industries overtaken by the likes of Apple, Spotify, Netflix, Amazon and Uber. While it’s often technology blamed for these disruptions, what really kills the existing market players is that they ignore the needs and desires of their customers. They make assumptions that their customers will continue to be loyal out of habit, while other players move in and serve their customers in more meaningful, relevant ways.

Change is the same. Organisational leaders who ignore the needs and desires of their employees when seeking to implement change risk losing them to the dreaded change resistance. Co-creating change with those impacted makes the resulting change more meaningful and relevant to them.

William Confalonieri talks about the power of co-creation in his 2009 article Walking a Mile in Your Customer’s Moccasins:(it) provides a valuable perspective from the market, validating the demand and improving the quality of the final design, reducing time and cost in the process. During the design process, enthusiastic participants can also become strong brand ambassadors from the beginning, having been involved in the creation.”

As humans, we tend to support and become emotionally attached to what we help create. We’re natural ambassadors for our own creations.

While some organisational leaders attempt to sell carefully crafted key messages of why a change being imposed is good for employees, leaders who take a human-centred, co-creation approach achieve a much better end result, plus much greater support from the humans in their employ.

By engaging broadly and genuinely with more employees from the outset, you’ll inspire a collective force of passionate, proactive ambassadors for your change initiative.

Why? Because it will also be their change initiative. 


Summary of Chapter 8

  • Change is much easier to implement when we bring those impacted along with us on the change journey.
  • Invest time and energy upfront to meaningfully engage with employees - you will understand how to best meet their needs.
  • Inspiring employees to bring about change via movements (not mandates) is more effective and sustainable.

About the Contributor

Leonie Mitaxa is a human centred design practitioner and transformation consultant.

She is passionate about supporting organisations to innovate and leverage space, technology and culture to achieve their aspirations and bring out the best in their people.

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