I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how crisis and opportunity go hand in hand. 

In the worst and most cold-hearted version of this, there are companies exploiting the current crisis in ways that are simply unconscionable. But for the rest of us, the shock to the system of the coronavirus pandemic, the lockdown and the economic standstill, offer a different kind of opportunity.

Whether as individuals or as businesses, as the world outside stands still for a moment, we have a time to reflect, be introspective, self-assess. Which in turn can be the seed of an opportunity for transformation. 

On an individual level, everyone I speak to has talked about the changes they envisage making to life after lockdown – both small shifts and large; from major life changes, to valuing connections with loved ones, to prioritising a daily walk, to changes that will make a difference beyond ourselves, such as being more conscious of waste, emissions and consumption. We’ve all heard about the YouGov poll from early April saying that only 9% of the UK’s population want to “go back to normal” after the pandemic is under control.

Meanwhile, on a business level, this crisis is forcing so many organisations to pivot, evolve, innovate – and fast!  If we can find a way to harness that time for reflection, while also pivoting, I think there are exciting opportunities for us all to genuinely transform.

And before I write on: I don’t mean to downplay the suffering that so many are facing– from sickness to loneliness, economic hardship to unspeakable loss, this is a genuinely rotten time to be experiencing.

But as we seek out the silver linings that will see us through, keep us going and help us to deliberately, consciously create a new normal in a post-lockdown world – I have found it really helpful to take time to revisit theories about the mechanics of transformation.

Continuous Improvement VS Transformation

At the start of 2019, I was lucky enough to spend a morning in a workshop with Dave Hall, of The Ideas Centre, on the strategic role of creativity in business.

I took several incredibly useful concepts away from this workshop – about the role of divergent thinking and suspending judgement in creating change. One learning that I took straight back into our business was that if we’re always focused on a “continuous improvement” model, we won’t be in the right mindset to create “transformation” moments. 

This video is a great summary from Dave: 

Confession time…

Like many businesses, we have faced multiple step-changes at Fountain over the years; those moments of “levelling” up, the leaps where something happens that propels you forward beyond any reasonable expectation. Sometimes these have felt like they have “happened to us” – other times we have consciously, determinedly created them. 

But my confession here is this: even after learning more about the mechanics of transformation from Dave Hall, at Fountain we still run continuous improvement projects. These are about optimising small aspects of business as usual (BAU), achieving marginal gains that stack up to deliver consistently improving results. 

But in focusing energy on these projects and a continuous improvement mentality, we recognise that we are not actually achieving transformation – we know we’re just optimising our current norm. Transformation requires a different mindset, a different approach – as Dave puts it, moving beyond the “world of what is”.

Different Perspectives, Different Roles

At Fountain we’re lucky to have a team of 4 founders, as well as an emerging Agency Growth team of colleagues, each with very different outlooks, approaches and strengths.

While having several of us steering the direction of the company comes with certain (*ahem*) challenges compared to businesses with one figure-head, it’s actually been a key strength in balancing BAU and step change moments. Some of us can remain focused on improving “what is”, while others can extend the line of sight to “what if”.

The key to making differing approaches work simultaneously – as well as the potential sticking point for things to go wrong – is our communication; both to each other and to include the wider organisation.

Step Change and Culture

I’m fascinated by these step changes because, compared to the familiarity of BAU, they present an entirely different challenge. 

They are not conventionally forecastable; you can’t rely on them happening and they can’t be planned for in a traditional way. So communicating them internally to a team is hard – do you paint the picture of dream castles that may or may not happen, potentially building indifference over time (“oh yeah, they always have some scheme or other on the go”) or do you spring the step-change on the team as it actually happens? Surprise! We’ve definitely done both in the past, and neither was ideal.

I’m fascinated about the second and third order consequences of these moments within a business – about how transformational change ripples out through the organisation, to individuals who are each on their own path within that organisation, and beyond to clients and other stakeholders.

I remember a colleague asking me after a particularly impactful step-change in 2017 that saw our team grow from 11 to 32 within a short space of time: “when will things go back to the way they were?” At the time it was really surprising to me that they would look at it that way, but in hindsight it was an important learning point for me – that it’s our responsibility as change makers to bring people along on the exceptional transformations with us.

One way to bring them along would be to include everyone in the process. But in a business like ours, maintaining the quality of BAU is vital – to over-labour a metaphor slightly: if everyone is focused on the big leap, the foundation that makes that leap possible could risk falling away.

So the challenge then is to maintain high standards of services to our clients, which in itself involves a level of continuous improvement – while also doing the work involved in, and shifting to the mindset needed for, step-change transformation – AND communicating the change effectively and inclusively.

Accessing Creativity 

Back to our current circumstances. Now that the dust has settled from the first few weeks of the coronavirus crisis and its impact on our business, like so many others, I see that the transformational opportunity in this moment is huge. 

One of our challenges with all this right now (in lockdown, mid-pandemic) is that if creativity is central to transformation, we have to acknowledge that creativity is not famous for flourishing on demand alongside pressure, fear and anxiety. 

So how can we overcome that to create the right conditions for the creativity that is required? How can we allow ourselves and our teams the very natural and healthy emotional responses to the extreme uncertainty we all find ourselves in, while also stepping beyond them to harness the creativity needed to transform?

I don’t have the answer. 

… but I’m working on it. 

I can definitely say that where we are managing to harness creativity during crisis at Fountain, it’s down to our culture.  We’re supporting each other, empathising, lifting each other’s spirits, getting excited together, constructively challenging each other and encouraging ambition. The investment we have made over the years into our culture has never been more impactful than in the face of this crazy time.

And I’m glad, because we truly do have an opportunity – as individuals, as businesses, as communities and as a society. 

If we can possibly manage to encounter the challenge this crisis presents with creativity – if we can break away from trying to “solve the problem” and “get back to normal”, we have a unique opportunity to genuinely transform.