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Why this pandemic is redefining what’s ‘possible’

17 Apr 2020

Written by Simon Rogerson

As we all settle into this strange new reality, I thought I’d share one of my biggest learnings so far. It’s about the shift in mindset that comes at a time of crisis.

Sticking to the status quo

Under normal circumstances, most established companies reject new ideas in favour of the status quo. In my experience, there are three reasons for this. First, most people simply don’t like the discomfort that comes with change. Secondly, a new idea or a new way of doing things might fail, causing that person to look foolish in front of their colleagues. Interestingly, and probably as a result of the way our education system works, it’s more the embarrassment than the failure that worries most people. Finally, most organisations (whatever they might say) prioritise short-term profitability ahead of everything else and change comes at a cost. 

Yet, from what I’ve seen over the last few weeks, it looks like most companies and their employees are getting a lot more creative with their thinking. Coronavirus has acted like some sort of shock therapy, jolting people out of their usual routine. Before coronavirus, new ideas might have been met with, “that’s not how we do things” or “it’s just not possible”. However, the general reaction now appears to be, “we’ll find a way”, or “we’ll give it a go”. That’s because the three reasons that people fight against change have largely disappeared.

Stepping out of comfort zones

In a crisis, everyone is forced to operate outside their comfort zone. Organisations are compelled to try new things simply because the old way of doing things is no longer possible. This means that the fear of failure or embarrassment disappears. Instead, it becomes more normal and more accepted if new ideas fail. Short-term profitability, unless it’s about a company’s survival, also becomes less of an issue. Shareholders recognise the cost of the crisis so they’re more accepting of companies ‘missing their numbers’. From a mindset perspective, I think coronavirus may end up being a big opportunity for organisations and very empowering for the people within them.   

At Octopus we’ve worked hard to build an entrepreneurial culture that embraces new ideas, but we’ve still had to think on our feet to cope with what’s been a radical change to the business environment. For example, our sales and investment teams have embraced webinars in a way I didn’t think possible, with hundreds of financial advisers now listening to opinions from our fund managers every week. Brand new sections have appeared on our website in days, not weeks. We also hosted a virtual breakfast-conference, about renewable energy, for 50 institutional investors. And we’ve run dozens of one-to-one training sessions to help financial advisers get the most out of working from home. 

Making things work

We’ve also seen this newfound willingness to think creatively and ‘make things work’ take hold in almost all aspects of life, not just in business. At one end of the spectrum, the NHS built a pop-up hospital in just nine days and has adopted as much digital technology in the last month as it has in the past decade. And at the other end, there’s the fitness instructor running an exercise class for the entire street from her driveway, or the next-door neighbours combating loneliness by taking down fences between gardens so they can keep each other company, from a distance. This kind of behaviour, I hope, will be one of the legacies of coronavirus.

The early signs are that this crisis is already redefining what we consider to be possible and, when we ultimately emerge, it will be fascinating to see if this shift in mindset endures. I wholeheartedly believe that all of us, businesses and individuals, will come out of it with fundamentally different ways of thinking.  

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