The COVID-19 pandemic is a time of extreme change for many workers and businesses. Kim Parlee speaks with Jim Carroll, author and futurist, for a look at how businesses can transform how they work in order to survive and thrive during trying times.
- Well, they're in survival mode. I mean, a lot of my time was spent with organizations, helping them understand where we're going to be five or 10 years from now. They're not thinking like that right now. They're merely thinking, what do we need to do to continue to get through the next two months, three months, six months, one year? So they're very short term-focused. They're frozen, I think, in dealing with the reality of what's going on.
- Well, and you, it's interesting-- you talk about on your website, you've got a quote saying, "when your old reality is gone for a while, it's time to make a new one." But how do you do that when, to your point, they're frozen and you're just trying to make it day-to-day?
- Well, I think it's the leadership tone set at the top. I was with a global food company in 2008, and, look, the global markets had just melted down. And I was speaking at their conference, and the CEO said to his team, look, we've got three choices. We can panic, we can freeze, or we can choose to innovate, change, and adapt in the context of what is going on.
And he said that's what we've got to do. We're going to figure out how we can charge ahead despite all this uncertainty. So it's very much a leadership tone to reset the organization for the future, despite the short term terror.
- I'm sure, to your point, it's leadership and they're the ones who have to set the tone. But there is a reality, I think, of human emotion that we have to go through. And we have a chart here that you talk about-- this is the seven stages of economic grief. Maybe you could just take us through it and why those stages matter and what they mean.
- Yeah, so I've been talking to organizations through the 2001 downturn, the 2008 downturn. And I noticed what happened with a lot of companies is they went through those stages of grief. They hit shock. They hit the anger phase. They hit the denial stage.
But it was those who really decided to move on to the acceptance stage who I think became the winners in the long run, because they refused to subscribe to that feeling of fear and being frozen. And when this global economy started melting down, I started focusing on that from my own perspective, knowing that, look, one day, we're going to come out of this. We might as well start getting ready for it when we can. We've got to move to the acceptance stage faster.
- Is there anything when you look at companies in terms of saying, obviously, you said the ones who get to the acceptance stage are the ones who can actually do something. But what leads them there? Is it the tone at the top? what's the difference between the companies that make it through the crisis and don't?
- It's the tone at the top, but it's also a longer term view. It's understanding, look, a lot of these trends that we were talking about, they haven't gone away. They might have been deferred, they're still going to be very real. But I think in the overall corporate strategy-- look, GE did a study that looked at five previous economic downturns, and they found that 60% of the organizations just sort of sat there. They muddled their way through.
30% didn't make it, they went bankrupt or they were bought out, but 10% became breakthrough performers because they specifically decided, look, despite what's going on, right now is the time to be big and bold. There's big market opportunities. There's big industry opportunities. There's still big ideas out there.
There's transformative thinking that we can pursue. And it's that mindset for that 10% that really made them stand out from the rest. And once we came out on the other side, we went, whoa, how did they do that? Well, they specifically chose to be that breakthrough performer.
- And I guess the question is how you do that. Because I think people who have gone through trauma-- I'd say maybe there's a personal analogy here too. It's hard when turmoil is the new normal and you're doing it every day. How are you able to do that?
- Well, it's by watching the trends. Look, there's fascinating things unfolding right now with what I call last-mile delivery technology-- the massive focus on e-commerce-- a lot of innovation going on with little small trucks that might drive around your neighborhood, massive transformative trends going on with health care. Telemedicine is going to be around for a long, long time.
There's massive trends going on with what we call 3D-printing, because that has accelerated as a technology concept with printing of surgical masks and COVID test swabs and all that stuff. So there is a lot of trends unfolding out there, and if you're not watching them, you're missing out on some stuff which is really going to change and challenge your future. If you grab onto them, you can do something great with them.
- Jim, I'm curious, I've spoken to a number of times over, gosh, I think it's been decades now, I know you believe in walking the talk. So what are you doing to transform your business right now?
- Well, it's right here in this screen. Look, behind me, I've got a green wall. This is down in my basement. I've got a home broadcast studio. When this started unfolding, I started putting in some time down here to understand what I could do, what I could build, the sophistication I could put in place. And I'm ready to go for global audiences.
I'm doing news interviews worldwide. I was live to Australia last week. And I've invested about 1,000 hours down here. My life used to be on stages in Las Vegas in front of 7,000 people and now I got this little basement. But I'm going to do everything I can to reinvent my future down here. And that's the mindset. There's opportunity out there. We're in a new world. All you can do is grab onto it and accept that reality and run with it.
- Jim, I know you were talking about the things that businesses need to do to survive and thrive, and you talked about your own example of how you're completely reinventing, you're doing. Is there one thing businesses do wrong in this time of extreme change?
- Yeah, they get indecisive. Look, I wrote a column in my global mail column back in 2002, and I was watching what was happening with companies' post-9/11, dotcom collapse. They were being indecisive. And the phrase I coined at the time, they were becoming aggressively indecisive. They were suffering from aggressive indecision.
And the mindset was kind of, well, we're not quite sure what's going to happen, so we're just going to wait to decide to do something. We're not quite sure how the future is going to unfold, so we're going to pause. And I think it's that culture of aggressive indecision that can really kill you, because the phrase I use, it puts in place this organizational sclerosis that sort of clogs up your ability to pursue the future. And meantime, there's big trends happening, there's big industry transformations underway, there's big ideas being pursued. And you're indecisive, you're not going to decide to move forward, that's going to get to you in the long run. You've got to avoid aggressive indecision.
- Now, how do you do that? Because I think that's probably something, if you're a small to medium size organization, it's easier to be nimble. If you're a massive company, how do you overcome, organizationally, aggressive indecision?
- Well, it's kind of funny. I was brought in by a couple of organizations, New York Life, Mercedes-Benz, Boehringer Ingelheim-- their leadership strategy was all based around a concept that we call agility-- how do we become a more agile organization? And it fits into my main mantra, that the future belongs to those who are fast.
We can't pause anymore. We need to learn to work fast as a team. We need to speed up all of our capabilities. And I think what we're bringing into that now is a leadership concept called VUCA. It's been around for a while. It's a leadership mindset that we've got to adapt to Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. That's our reality.
So how do we structure around that? Well, we develop a leadership mindset and trends ability and the innovation capability that aligns to those realities. And I'm witnessing that start to emerge with some organizations. And most importantly, it all goes back to the trend. Someday, we're going to be out of this thing.
We will be in a different economy, and there's big things unfolding right now in so many industries. But there's people around the world right now looking at those trends and saying, I'm going to do something with that. I'm going to transform an industry. I'm going to be a part of that.
- You talked a little bit earlier about some of the big trends you're seeing, but maybe you could just dig in on a few of them about what you think, perhaps, is going on and maybe people should be paying a little more closer attention to.
- The emergence of social distancing consultants. I mean, there was that article that was in the paper a couple of days ago about elevators and the whole process of getting into an elevator has changed. There is an entire new profession of people who will reengineer the workplace as we slowly go back to work. I mean, that's a thing.
Certainly, last-mile delivery technology-- every single retailer has had to experiment with curbside pickup, with home delivery, with sophisticated e-commerce strategies. And there was a lot of innovation occurring with little small delivery platforms-- whether it was drones, whether was small little local delivery trucks-- before the crisis began.
And what is now happening in Silicon Valley and elsewhere is these entrepreneurs looking at that and saying, well, we primed the pump with this massive rush to online shopping and e-commerce because of COVID, now is the time to accelerate that technology. So what we were talking with drones flying through the sky delivering your products to your home, we might now see that coming at us as one of the big disruptive ideas to emerge in COVID-19, because people will realize the opportunity behind that trend has suddenly become so much more real.
- Jim, I know it looks like you're going to get broadcasters a run for their money, and I know we're all getting kind of exhausted from all these video interactions. You've found a way, of course, to make it stand out, but any advice for people who maybe don't have the ability to be a broadcaster at home?
- I think it's changing up your message. I paraphrase a Pink Floyd song-- short sharp shocks of information. Look, there is a quote I use onstage at a lot of retail conferences around the world before all this began that a typical goldfish today, a scientific study has proven, has a longer attention span than a human. Our attention spans were already collapsing, and they've collapsed even worse as we've moved to this online world.
So the idea of a one-hour call, the idea of a one-hour conference, the idea of a 30-minute Zoom call, that doesn't fly. You've got to keep it short. You got to keep it simple. You've got to learn to become really concise in your insight and the points you're trying to get across, because we're all just but a mouse click away from doing something entirely different.
- Jim, a pleasure. Thanks so much for joining us.
- Thank you for bringing me in.