Wonder What’s Next? This Is How We Invent the Future

Guest contribution from Jill Hufnagel

Never before have we collectively been under the kinds of pressure we’re experiencing globally in the moment that is COVID19. It’s as if we’ve all—at the same time—had the rug pulled out from under us. While the fall-out of that missing rug varies widely, we’re individually and organizationally grappling with an environment that is spawning rapid, concurrent adaptation. 

We are experiencing entirely different rhythms to our stay at home lives and livelihoods. We are fumbling and disoriented, learning in fits and starts, reacting in vastly different ways, some retreating inward, others reaching out. There’s no map, no manual. We are all at once making it up as we go. And that is the work of leadership in this unprecedented moment. 

In this place of uncertainty, the impulse to cling to the past or forecast the future is seductive and ubiquitous. “When can we go back to business as usual” is embedded in article after article after article and in conversations over kitchen tables and makeshift home offices. The short answer: never. Which is why madly clicking our heels is as self-defeating as our attempts to predict the future. Instead the ask is both ambitious and invigorating: to quell our need to know long enough to see the cracks in the systems we’ve built . . and with the daylight showing through those cracks to find new, unexplored paths forward into this yet-to-be invented future. Fortunately, all signs suggest we have it in us. 

Never before have we learned so much about anything so quickly. With a clear-eyed, shared global purpose—to protect the many, slow the spread, nurture the human spirit–driving that learning, awe-inspiring adaptations are emerging literally everywhere, and at Mach speed. As we seek to care for each other, to connect while #aparttogether, these adaptations are cropping up as wildly joyous public displays of affection: virtual celebrations, applause and gratitude for healthcare workers, street-level wedding vows. At the same time, far-flung game nights, neighborhood bear hunts, dance parties and family TikTok dances have grown like weeds this spring. These are the tangible signs of our human impulse to persevere—to adapt and innovate in the face of pressure and disequilibrium. 

Within organizational life, adaptations are emerging at a time when many report paltry engagement scores and wrestle with their part of this disconnect. Yet what I am hearing over these last several weeks are employees feeling more connected to each other and to their mission than ever before. Thanks to virtual meetings that bridge geographical divides, those working across the world from one another are now face-to-face care of the new norm of video conferencing. What we were getting to—sorting out how to fully leverage the virtual—we appear to have gotten to in record time. 

For businesses large and small, adaptations are cropping up as purposeful pivots: hand sanitizers from distilleries and cosmetics houses, face masks turned out by the hundreds thanks to an outdoor goods store working to protect those in my own city’s homeless shelter, car manufacturers exploring a turn to ventilators. Contact-free curbside pickup has become the norm. Stores have setup special senior hours and reconfigured their checkouts for low contact, social distancing and heightened protection. 

In their Herculian efforts to both fight the virus and calm their patients, healthcare workers have paused to consider how they appear to frightened patients and have responded with another compassionate shift: wearing on the outside of their protective gear photos of themselves without the masks that obscure their faces to connect more deeply with those in their care. Across industries, innovation is alive, with hands-free door openers and COVID-driven inventions just the beginning. There’s even a Coronavirus innovation map to help track the proliferation of burgeoning resources emerging in response to the pandemic. 

Similarly powerful adaptations are cropping up in each and every one of our own lives and organizations. Rather than longing for the past or hovering over the crystal ball, this is a time to get on the balcony and take note. What adaptations are you making individually and organizationally? And just as importantly: why? What purpose is at the core of these adaptations? Which of those adaptations do you want to preserve and bring forward? When the pressure lets up, the pull to go back to the way it was—and the belief that this is possible- – will be enticing. And yet: in our shared desire to persevere, we are living in a space of innovation that was at best aspirational when it wasn’t vitally necessary. 

The rules keep changing. The non-negotiables are suddenly negotiable. We’re releasing inmates, homing the homeless, banning utility shut-offs. The renegotiations are remarkable. And the appetite for experimentation? Insatiable. There’s a connective tissue unearthed when together we’re facing our individual and organizational mortality, when the walls between our personal and professional realms are pierced with barking dogs and curious kids, when we are all at once peeking out over new frontiers. While we’re hungry for it, let’s notice what we’re willing to try and learn. And capture that. We will need it in the months and years ahead. This is quite literally the leadership work of inventing the future. And it’s all of ours to shape

About Jill Hufnagel

An international expert on adaptive leadership and case-in-point learning, Jill Hufnagel provides consultation on unwieldy organizational challenges and designs and delivers immersive leadership workshops built on deep capacity development and possibility thinking. Her clients include Fortune 500 companies, tech firms and financial institutions, school districts and health care organizations, as well as both federal government and global governing organizations. Learn more about her work @ jillhufnagel.com. She can be contacted at jill@jillhufnagel.com.