Dealing with Change During the Coronavirus/COVID-19 Pandemic



During this coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic, we’re all being forced to change. And change isn’t always easy for people.

Not that long ago, and in entirely different circumstances, I talked with Arun Pradhan about anticipating, dealing with, facilitating, and benefitting from change. Of course, the circumstances are entirely different now, but there were still some useful tips that came up in the conversation that we thought would help people better adjust to the changing circumstances as a result of COVID-19.

Check out the entire discussion if you wish, or read on for some highlights and tips you may be able to apply today.

Tips for Dealing With Change During The Coronavirus Epidemic

Below we’ve pulled out some of the parts of our discussion that seem relevant today and feel like things you could apply to the changes brought about by the coronavirus.

Four Aspects of Dealing with Change

Arun identified four aspects of dealing with and navigating change. They were (1) predicting or seeing the signals for change and being sensitive around that; (2) adapting to change and how we react to change; (3) developing oneself and embodying change; and (4) leading change and innovation.

We’ll talk more about each of those aspects of change below.

How This Relates to Coronavirus:

If change is everywhere during normal times, it’s everywhere x 10 during a pandemic. So this connection is easy enough to see.

Change Is Everywhere And We’re Not Naturally Good at It

Even in normal times, change is everywhere. And obviously that’s even more so on. And even in the best of circumstances, we’re not always good at change. Here’s how Arun put it:

I think the thing that I find most interesting about it is it’s absolutely inevitable. It just is happening. It’s…this idea of the Buddhist notion, I guess, of impermanence. It’s just there. And at the same time, we suck at it so badly…As humans, we’re just so bad at change on an individual and organizational level. We’re in denial, there’s all the cognitive biases around it, around stability bias and around resistance to change.

How This Relates to Coronavirus:

Again, this is always true, so it’s true now, too. But right now we’re being asked to make a lot of major challenges affecting nearly everything we do, so it’s especially challenging and especially relevant.

So remember, we’re not great at change. That means we’ll have to (1) work a little harder on it now and also (2) be kind to ourselves in the times when we get things wrong, because we will get things wrong.

Predicting or Sensing the Signals of Change–

It helps to have your “antenna” out to begin picking up on signals that it may be time for a change or that change may be coming whether you’re ready for it or not.

But it won’t help you just to have your antenna out, because we’re all subject to too much information out there. So you need to depend on some aspect of filtering in which you filter out the information that’s not helpful and find trusted, insightful sources that are helpful.

Here’s how Arun discussed that aspect of filtering:

And I think part of this is about filtering. You know, it’s so easy to get overwhelmed in our culture today. In our world today, there’s so much information and things coming at us. And so we all need filters. We all need ways of choosing what information, what things we trust, what information we look at.

And I think when you look at this idea of looking at those signals, you’re really looking at are you are you putting in place the correct filters? Are you putting in place filters and ways to access the right information that is going to influence what’s going to happen next and allow you to position yourself?

Finally, he says we need to think about the following in relation to this:

  • Technology
  • People
  • Cognitive frameworks

Here’s how Arun explained his points about technology, people, and cognitive frameworks:

And I think there’s, you know, there’s technology that can help with that in terms of what are your feeds on your social networks, or the other apps you use.

There are people, like, what sort of networks are you connecting with? And who are you exposing yourself to in terms of those ideas?

And then there’s internally the cognitive frameworks that you’re using. What are the assumptions? What are the belief systems that you’re using that make you dismiss evidence or information or, you know, take it on board?

Finally, Arun offered some tips on what we could do when we do begin to sense signals of change, including recognizing the limits of our own expertise:

And having criteria because it’s that thing of, too. Take VR and AR. You saw those signals coming from a while ago and knew this was going to be a thing. And it’s not to say that they’re just adapting it for everything. It’s also staying true to your cognitive framework and your criteria and having some skepticism to say, “Well, how can this be used? How can it not?” And also knowing the limits of your own expertise to say “Well, actually I have no idea how this might be used. Who can I talk to you? Where can I go for more?”

How This Relates to Coronavirus:

The two big points of interest here are (1) making sure we’re staying open to new sources of information and (2) making sure we’re listening to trustworthy, reliable, credible sources of information to separate the signal from the noise.

On a global, national, or state level, we have to be listening to respected medical and public health experts about the disease itself. We have to listen to officials at different levels of our government (federal, state, and local) to learn about government efforts. We have to listen to people in our industries to learn industry-specific tips and to people in our geographical areas to find out what’s happening in our own communities. And we’ve got to listen to our own family members.

We also, of course, need to filter out the communications that are not helpful or are untrue. For example, don’t trust everything you read or see on social media.

And finally, we all need to be building up our mental models about coronavirus so we can analyze new information about the disease, make sense of it, figure out how to apply it, and continue learning and reconfiguring our mental models.

Thoughts on Navigating Change

Arun identifies two big aspects relating to how we can navigate change:

  • Shifting your mindset
  • Using tools and ideas from behavioral economics

Let’s start by considering his points about shifting your mindset.

The first is around shifting mindset. And I think that’s the most challenging…You know, I talk about the idea of having optimism through ambiguity, which I think came from IDEO. They talked a lot about that, and that design thinking world, and it’s about having that sort of confidence in the process and in the tools that you’re using, and feeling okay with not knowing how it’s going to end up.

Having said that, it’s bloody hard to do because we all want certainty. We all want control. We all want that confidence, but it’s do we make that shift?

So it’s trying to be a bit more fluid. It’s trying to hold on to tools and mental models lightly. And then being able to adapt. But it’s bloody hard.

Next, let’s consider his comments about using lessons from behavioral economics to help us navigate change:

And so the other one, which is easier, and I think that’s inspired me more recently, is behavioral economics. And this idea of fast thinking versus slow thinking, of understanding that we as humans only make conscious, really thoughtful rational decisions, very few moments in a day. And most of the time, we’re on automatic pilot. So how can we support ourselves through our environment and the environmental design by being around the right people?

This idea of how can you put yourself in a position where you’re going to be influenced to make the right decisions at the right time? And you know, there’s the whole nudge framework around that as well.

I think nudges are the sort of most practical end of behavioral economics, if you want to look at nudge theory and particularly, the framework I find the most useful is the EAST framework, and their framework asks: (1) How can you make it easy? (2) How can you make it attractive? (3) How can you make it social? And (4) How can you make it timely?

I often think of, if I need to get something done, how can I nudge myself? How can I actually nudge or create sludge? Like make the decisions you don’t want to make harder as well? Because I know I can’t myself because I know my brain is going to go for the simple solutions, it’s going to go for this sort of fast-thinking, from-the-hip solutions.

You can’t maintain that level of cognitive awareness and rational thought throughout the day. So how can you support yourself in automatic pilot? I think is that is that the question.

How This Relates to Coronavirus:

First, we need to try to shift our mind frames. No, you don’t want to hug people or shake hands. No, you don’t have to go out to eat or to get a beer, and no, it may not be necessary to be at work in the plant or office.

But given that it’s hard to shift mind frames, you might want to use the nudge and sludge techniques from behavioral economics to help guide you into right decisions and actions (nudging) and guide you away from bad decisions and actions (sludging). Here’s an interesting article from a British behavioral economics team on how to use nudge and sludge to help you quit touching your face, for example.

Innovating to Lead Change

Next, we talked about creating innovations and leading change. In doing so, he talked about:

Here’s what Arun had to say, in part:

…People know we’re in a period of accelerated change and our controlling nature makes us want to lead that change rather than be victims of it…

…I know we’re both interested in the underpinnings of innovation being psychological safety….We all knew it on an intuitive level that psychological safety was crucial. Like, you know, you’ve been in a work environment where you feel like, if you make a silly suggestion, you’re going to get persecuted or be made fun of or whatever, and you keep it quiet. And you’ve been in those environments, hopefully, where you feel like you have trust with the people around you. And you can make the silliest suggestion, what’s perceived to be silly. And it might not be that suggestion, but that’s going to prompt other people, because they’re going to take it openly. They’re going to build on it and so on.

So part of that too, is are you in a diverse team? You know, there’s more and more evidence now to show that diverse teams breed better innovation. And it’s not say diverse teams are easy. I know, myself being in diverse teams, which I push for, it’s frustrating when people…like I know people who work similarly to me, they think similarly to me, and I love being in those teams because it’s so comfortable. The other teams are painful, especially in the early stages, and yet, they make you explain your assumptions. They make you question things that you took for granted, which can seem very annoying at the time and inefficient, and yet, it tends to lead to better results more consistently.

And the last thing I’d say around innovation is really…as you know, I’m a huge fan of design thinking. And I think obviously design thinking…the criticism against design thinking often takes it as a superficial kind of two-dimensional element. But really, for me, design thinking where you’re starting from a place of empathy, you’re co-designing and collaborating, you’re failing fast and prototyping and doing iterations, and you’re thinking of the whole experience rather than just a moment in time. I think it’s a really powerful process, which undermines this whole idea that some people are creative and some people aren’t. You can take people through a process and actually be creative in that process.

How This Relates to Coronavirus:

All of these points are critical but pretty easy to overlook.

Your organization will have to create an atmosphere in which people feel it’s safe to raise their thoughts and concerns. And be honest with yourself here–you may THINK that’s true at your organization now, especially if you’re in management, but there’s still a good chance that workers don’t feel that way.

And of course, opening up the brainstorming process for how to deal with coronavirus to a more diverse group is key. Take an honest look at your organization: are you heavily siloed? Are you overly hierarchical? Do information and decisions always flow from top-down? This HBR article titled What Organizations Need to Survive a Pandemic argues in favor of more diversity and less hierarchy/centralized control.

And finally, we need to use empathy to find solutions that are best for our customers and employees. If your organization is spending a lot of time communicating about how employees need to stay 100% productive at this moment and you’re not spending much time at all helping employees deal with the incredibly confusing changes we’re all going through, you’re probably not displaying as much empathy as you could.

Developing to Embody Change

Finally, Arun talked about what we can do on the ground to make change happen. Here’s what he had to say.

This is the more traditional domain of learning and development, because that’s what we always go to. We’ve got a performance issue and therefore people have to change, to deal with that performance issue. That’s kind of the standard approach.

Often now I’m thinking about how can we change the environment before we change people, because environments tend to be easier to change than people.

But in terms of learning and development, the way I break it down…I mean, obviously, there’s mindset and motivation, which is one area which we kind of touched on. But the two key areas are really knowledge or skills. And in knowledge, my focus tends to be developing that latticework of mental models, of having or bringing an awareness to what concepts you are using to make decisions to do your work.

And this constantly amazes me. I often run learning agility-style workshops. Now I’ve done it even with executives, and I’ve introduced the concept of mental models if they haven’t come across that before, of what are the concepts in their brains that they’re actually…what are their go-to sort of frameworks that they’re using to understand the world and to act in it. And what amazes me is that even executives who are working at a pretty high level in the organization often struggle to identify more than seven or eight mental models that they’re consciously using. I can cajole them to do a bit more if I’m introducing, I know that, for example, there’s GROW coaching, or there’s the Pareto principle and when I give them some models as examples, they can probably push it up to about 10. But most people, I’ve found, don’t actually have a conscious library of mental models that they use. So that, for me, is remarkable.

And in the meantime, often, L&D is so focused on just getting information through as opposed to building up what’s really important is the toolkit in our minds. So that’s one area.

And the other area is skills development. It’s actually how does that how do those models come into play in the real world? How do you actually develop those skills? And my go to there is Anders Ericsson, who wrote the book Peak, who really talks a lot about deliberate practice, and having those feedback loops and also the loops of targeted practice, of feedback and honing in on your weak spots. It’s not just doing, it’s having that deliberate practice loop.

How This Relates to Coronavirus:

It’s going to be helpful to share some knowledge throughout our organization, and we’ll want to do that. But we also need to keep in mind what we know from the best practices of evidence-based training: delivering information is different than facilitating learning and helping people acquire skills.

So remember that we need to help people develop new skills to match the changing time (such as how to work from home) and remember that simply delivering information isn’t the same as building skills.


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