In March, as the reality of COVID-19 started taking hold, when my team received our fifth request in one day to postpone a keynote speech and my calendar was suddenly, unexpectedly, free for months, we sat down to discuss what to do. We figured that (a) other business thought-leaders are similarly, suddenly free and (b) many are wondering what would happen to the business they own or work.

So, we decided to link supply with demand and launch a series of virtual summits connecting today’s most influential business thinkers with the practitioners (strategists, executives, and entrepreneurs) who could apply the business thinkers’ insights to create a better future … with 100% of profits donated to COVID-19 charities. We called it the Reimagine the Future summit.

The response exceeded our hopes. Immediately, many of today’s foremost business thinkers signed up including Paul Krugman (Nobel Prize-winning economist), Renee Mauborgne (creator of Blue Ocean Strategy and ranked the #1 business thinker in the world), Rita McGrath (ranked the #1 innovation thinker in the world), and Liz Wiseman (ranked the #1 leadership thinker in the world). In all, 47 of the most influential management thinkers today agreed to speak. We attracted over 5,000 “Outthinkers” (innovators, executives, entrepreneurs) and raised $160,000 for charity.

I personally watched all 47 sessions and reviewed recordings on the content portal available to summit registrants. Our team conducted an in-depth content analysis of the session transcriptions and audience dialogue. Here are the results … the five most important themes of advice from 47 leading thinkers (47 hours of talks summarized into a five-minute read):

  • Proximity
  • Purpose
  • Options
  • Coordination
  • Through the middle to the new

Proximity

The most commonly cited concept that came out of the summits was “proximity.” Rob Wolcott (Kellogg and Chicago Booth professor, co-founder of The World Innovation Network) introduced this as a unifying explanation of the path of innovation. The time between demand for a product or service is moving ever closer to the moment of value creation.

Amazon’s strategy could be summarized by this strategic goal. They use predictive analytics to anticipate what people will want, and place warehouses near population clusters. A dynamic supply chain starts filling those warehouses ahead of demand so that people who want something can get it not within days … but within hours.

Ming Zeng (former chief strategy officer of Alibaba) laid out a vision for business based on proximity. The companies that will lead in the future, he argued, will be those with access to real-time customer data (not focus groups or market studies but actual purchases and behavior). They will link that into their product design and marketing activities to dynamically respond to customer demands, thereby moving from annual analyses of customer needs for R&D and product design purposes toward real-time responses.

But there are other forms of proximity: psychological, physical, special, and geographical (think clusters like Silicon Valley for technology and Boston for biotech) to name a few. All of these are being reoriented by COVID-19.

The most obvious impact is where people do their work. If we are lucky enough to have work right now, we are likely, with some exceptions, doing it virtually. Lynda Gratton (London Business School professor and expert on the future of work) pointed out that this is causing us to redesign routines.

Routines enable us to separate (expand psychological separation) between our life roles … parent, tutor, professional, spouse. The rituals of dressing in work clothes, stopping at Starbucks, and reading the paper in the morning help put you into a mental state for doing work. These rituals create psychological divisions, which increase productivity. When you are working from home, however, you don’t have those rituals already established, your identities blend, and productivity drops.

We are learning new rituals … and it is exhausting. Martin Lindstrom (best-selling author of Buyology and expert on the psychological impacts of customer behavior) points out that on average a consumer conducts 350 subconscious routines a day. Right now 40% of these routines are being repressed (boarding a train, buying coffee, shaking someone’s hand) and this creates an immense cognitive drain, which is why so many of us feel exhausted.

Both Lindstrom and Gratton pointed to the additional cost of decreased physical proximity. We are getting less human contact. I am lucky to live in a home with three affectionate children, a wife, two cats, and a dog. So, I get plenty of snuggles and hugs. But many are being deprived of human touch. Lindstrom cited a study showing that rats deprived of contact with other rats die earlier. Our lack of touch, if it continues, could have significant implications.

As people learn new rituals to create the spaces between our roles and identities, we could see remote working becoming more common, even as offices start opening back up. Benjamin Pring (executive at Cognizant and authority on the future of work) and Rosabeth Moss-Kanter (Harvard Business School professor who won the Lifetime Achievement Award by Thinkers50 last year) also pointed to humans’ need for touch (physical proximity).

Yet we see as the geographical barriers to proximity are removed from the equation today, we are reorganizing along different dimensions of proximity. Family proximity steps forward, for example, as we hold virtual family reunions or weddings. My family, dispersed across 12 time zones, held a Houseparty video get-together. Virtual happy hours or coffees allow old friends in far-flung cities to reconnect.

Purpose

Purpose was another major theme. Los Angeles’ clean skies and Venice’s crystal canals are illustrating to humanity how our commutes, tourism, and air travel have been impacting the environment. Global consciousness of our impact on the environment is rising.

Moss-Kanter pointed out that businesses that fail to consider their impact on social stakeholders hurt their own prospects. Uber, for example, didn’t address the negative impact its growth was having on stakeholders – like drivers, local tax authorities, and taxicab companies – and was blocked from several international markets as a result. Airbnb, Google, and Facebook have faced similar resistance to their growth.

The realization that companies whose growth is good for the world should outperform those whose growth is not, has been surfacing for over a decade now. The COVID crisis will accelerate it.

Dan Pink (best-selling author of numerous books including When and Drive) argued that COVID-19 is “unmasking” questions we have needed to address like whether shareholders really should be corporations’ most important stakeholders and, for individuals, “what really matters to me and my life?”

David Ulrich (considered the father of modern-day HR) argued that while in the past, organization culture was viewed as a set of rituals or norms, it should instead be aligned to the purpose of the organization. Do the cultural norms of your organization help you achieve the impact you wish to have on the world?

This is a unique moment in history. As Marshall Goldsmith (best-selling author and the #1 rated executive coach in the world) said, “I’m 70 years old and I have never experienced anything like this.” He then advised that right now we should be thinking about “what do you want to be remembered for” in these times. This kind of thinking is important for your business as well.

Tiffani Bova (global growth evangelist at Salesforce and best-selling author of Growth IQ) advised that if you want to grow post the COVID-19 crisis, you should look at how you can help your customers right now … “they will remember.”

You can see a clear divide now between people aligning to a new purpose and those waiting for a return to normal. As Faith Popcorn (best-selling author of The Popcorn Report and top-rated futurist) and her colleague Kim Bates pointed out, some people are simply bored at home right now, waiting for the crisis to end. Others are taking this as an opportunity to learn and develop themselves, like the 5,000 Outthinkers who joined our summit.

Options

This is a moment to create options rather than plans. Amy Webb (futurist author of The Signals are Talking and other best-sellers) said, “All strategic plans need to be rewritten” now because COVID-19 has forced us to rethink. Scott Anthony (Clayton Christensen collaborator and co-author) pointed out the need to introduce optionality into our plans.

Options are about creating possibilities over certainty with the goal of learning rather than predictable results. This is why Anthony, Tendayi Viki (author of Pirates in the Navy), Alex Osterwalder (author of Business Model Generation and The Invincible Company), and Navi Radjou (author of Frugal Innovation) all emphasized the need to conduct small, inexpensive experiments with the goal of learning. As Zeng pointed out, the companies that become smarter faster will win.

Amy Edmondson (HBS professor, author of the best-selling The Fearless Organization) advised that we focus today not on how we look but how quickly we learn. Mauborgne talked about the need to explore new market spaces that help us, or, in the words of McGrath, to “see around corners”. Francesca Gino (best-selling author of Rebel Talent) advised that we foster and look for “happy accidents” in which the unexpected results open new possibilities.

Coordination

Creating purpose and pursuing options naturally leads to creating coordination. The challenges we face today demand collaboration across organizations, cultures, and countries. Anthony advised that we “share the load” of innovation and embrace collaboration through open innovation.

Edmondson pointed out that today, more than ever, we need to enable “cross-sector teaming” in which people from across industries and functions come together. This requires creating “psychological safety” in which people feel free to speak up. Aligning behind a shared purpose helps us do this.

But as Megan Reitz (best-selling author of Speak Up) pointed out, it also requires that, as leaders, we check-in on what we do to allow and encourage people to speak their minds. She notes that 47% of mid-level managers believe that their ideas, when presented, will be ignored (vs. only 20% who believe they will be taken seriously). Her advice to leaders:

  1. Don’t pretend you are not scary. Even if you say “we are all equal,” people will put more weight on what you say and how you react than they will on others.
  2. Create a list of the people you listen to, those people to whom, when they share opinions, you pay particular attention. Then ask, “Do they look a lot like me?” If so, you should start expanding that list.
  3. Watch your immediate reactions to new ideas. A subtle frown which, to you, is your “thinking face,” may be interpreted by others as a sign of disagreement.

Pring believes we are evolving from Hierarchies to “Wirearchies,” recognizing that intelligence is not centralized but rather decentralized. As Edmonson advised, recognize ideas can come from anywhere. Listen. Be open. Collaborate.

Through the Middle to the New

Finally, where is all of this leading? It seems unlikely that, in most sectors, we will go back to “business as usual.” We will settle on something, but it will be different.

Gender roles shift

First, the role of gender will shift yet further. Gratton outlined the history of roles shifting. As the adoption of appliances required people to do less housework, women started moving from domestic work to having jobs outside of the home … but not yet having careers. Then as roles shifted further, women began to have careers. Then women started taking senior roles in corporations, but still not often enough in the very top roles.

So gender roles have been shifting steadily for quite some time, and COVID-19 is accelerating that evolution. My wife, for example, is a senior executive at Mastercard. She has spent the last two months on 10 hours of conference calls daily, while managing our move from one house to another. What makes it possible for her to play this role – in addition to her being a superhero! – is that we do not adopt a traditional division of labor. As a foodie, I joyfully take on the role of getting groceries, cooking, and cleaning dishes (I also do other things like laundry and paying bills that I love a little less).

Several speakers pointed out that countries that have best managed COVID-19 are led by women – Angela Merkel in Germany, Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, Sanna Marin in Finland (who leads a coalition of four female-led parties), Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan. Drawing lessons from such well-run governments will naturally lead to dialogue about whether, as the New York Times put it, “A new leadership style offers promise for a new era of global threats.”

Pring talked about moving from “CEO to She-EO.”  He hopes that should his young daughter be designated someday as the CEO of a major public company, “it won’t be news.”

New spaces to unlock

COVID-19 is creating a movement toward massive non-consumption and, therefore, opportunities to create new markets. As Efosa Ojomo (co-author of The Prosperity Paradox with Clayton Christensen) put it, “COVID is creating non-consumption on a large scale.” So, now is the time to focus not only on sustaining innovations and efficiency innovations, but on market-creating innovations. Or what Mauborgne calls “blue oceans.” There are four barriers to look at to unlock those options:

  • Price
  • Access
  • Time
  • Know-how

Some industries will be hurt hard … specifically, those with low margins that depend on bringing together large groups of people. Scott Galloway (NYU professor, author of The Four) advised that “anything with an escalator will die.”

Dealing with inequality

Pink pointed out that COVID-19 will “unmask” an issue of inequality festering beneath our societies. It is now evident that not everyone is being impacted equally. Some live in crowded quarters so cannot self-isolate, lack access to adequate healthcare and testing, cannot afford to be without income for more than a week, and are being evicted from their houses.

The riots in the US are maybe just the first sign of the significance of the inequality problem. Popcorn and Bates see inequality growing, leading to a future of “haves and have nots.” When people need to separate in common spaces, our beaches and parks and restaurants will lack the capacity to accommodate all those accustomed to such things. Will the elite be the ones able to pay for private beach space? Will park access be sold to the highest bidders?

Through the messy middle

Getting to this “new normal” will take resilience. Moss-Kanter pointed out that “Everything can feel like failure in the ‘messy middle.’”

Hal Gregersen (author of best-seller Questions are the Answer) said, “You learn through going through ‘dark space’ – shock and uncertainty – but then the [learning] curve comes back.”

So how do you get through this “messy middle” to create a future that works for everyone? Kirstin Ferguson (chair of Australia Broadcasting Corporation) advised that we should “balance a paradox: have faith you will prevail on one hand and on the other hand make an honest assessment of the [dire] situation you are in.”

Goldsmith offered similar advice, saying that leaders today need to create a vision for the future but tell people that the vision may change. While the vision may change, it’s good to always have a vision we are working toward. He also advised, “Focus on what you can do, not what you can’t do.”

And Gregersen offered a powerful exercise for getting through the “messy middle”: pick a challenge, then do nothing but ask yourself questions about that challenge for 90 seconds. During his talk, Gregersen picked a challenge and had the audience first share key words that described how they felt about it. The most frequently used words were things like “fear,” “concern,” and “uncertainty.” He then had the audience write as many questions as they could about the challenge for 90 seconds. When they were done, he asked them to share the words that described how they felt about the challenge now. The most frequently cited words became things like “hope,” “determination,” and “possibility.”

Take 90 seconds to conduct his exercise and you, too, may find you create a sense of hope.

Conclusion

It’s not easy to summarize 47 hours of mind-opening talks into five bullets, and I certainly am leaving out a lot here, but consider applying these five themes to your business, career, and life:

  • Proximity: Rethink what it means to be close.
  • Purpose: Find and align to a purpose that puts you and your collaborators into action.
  • Options: Focus not on creating a plan but on creating options.
  • Coordination: Create collaboration, finding ideas from non-obvious spaces.
  • Work through the messy middle to create a new order: Know that this “messy middle” is part of the journey and have the commitment and flexibility to see it through, seizing the opportunities crisis creates and reconciling the dilemmas it unmasks.

If you are interested in taking part in our next summit, visit reimaginethefuture.io.

Photo by Ylanite Koppens from Pexels