Really? Another pandemic semi-lockdown? Here we are, 17+ months into pandemic and lockdown life, facing another Covid-19 crisis. How can we possibly continue to “adapt and thrive” in the face of this perpetual uncertainty? What does this mean for each of us, and what does it mean for us collectively?
Last week I had the first in-person business meeting since starting a new venture last summer. The delight is hard to describe. Even with the awkwardness arising from sudden over-stimulation, the energy, buoyancy, and joy that came to life in the room was palpable.
And now, this week, masks are on, dates to return to work are delayed, and social distancing is back. The familiar feeling of anxiety has crept back in: Should I go to the birthday party this weekend? Should I finally go to the dentist? Will customers delay the start of programs until they are back in the office?
We each have our own version of this, and our own experience of anxiety that arises with uncertain and changing conditions. So how do we cope? How do we grow and thrive?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, adaptation is the “adjustment to environmental conditions, such as modification of an organism or its parts, that makes it more fit for existence under the conditions of its environment.” That is perhaps a complex way of saying “survival.” Our biology is set up to naturally adapt and our brains are wired to learn from experience.
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” — Albert Einstein
So we have innate “software” that enables us to learn and grow throughout our lives and in varying conditions. But it is not quite that simple or straightforward. We also have a nervous system that can trigger a response of fear and aversion to new situations, whether we perceive them to be positive or negative. This stress response can shut down our openness to learning and lead us to rely upon familiar solutions. Instead of responding in a new way, we revert to the status quo or inertia (do nothing).
Relying exclusively on existing knowledge or sticking to responses we know have worked in the past when we are in a novel situation shuts down new possibilities. It is as if we put blinders on. Our creative mind loses out to a stress response in our body and brain that seeks, or automatically generates, a familiar way of being. This is sometimes referred to as the “adaptability paradox”. Just when we need to find a new solution the most, we are gripped by fear of moving forward. This response is also a part of our innate software, but it limits growth and the discovery of new ways of responding. Innovation gets averted.
Merriam-Webster defines innovation as “the introduction of something new; novelty.” We could frame some of the changes and adaptations we have made in our lifestyle as a result of COVID-19 as innovations. Some of them we certainly would rather live without but I am sure each of us can find examples of adaptations we have made, and things we have learned, that have moved us forward.
On my side, I became a virtual corporate trainer overnight. I would not have volunteered for that role as digital fluency was not a strength of mine when the pandemic began. But a scheduled in-person training program was happening two weeks into lockdown and I had the opportunity to deliver it virtually instead. I quickly got a tutorial on zoom, practiced with friends, and successfully delivered the first program. I wondered if virtual emotional intelligence training could work without us all being together physically in the same room and found out that it did! The evaluations were good; the participants had connected with me and each other and learned new skills.
These learnings nudged me to explore how I might bring ideas I had about developing a new kind of training program to fruition. Since all of my work was not converting to virtual, I had space in my schedule to fill. Some outreach efforts quickly turned me toward a Silicon Valley tech startup accelerator program. I applied to the Founder Institute program (even as a non-digitally-fluent being) and was accepted. I have spent the year since creating a new startup company and the AwakeTeams training platform that is now in the pilot phase.
I joke that this has been the most extroverted year of my life, all while in isolation! In addition to brushing up on old skills, such as creating and effectively delivering PowerPoint presentations (virtually!), developing financial models, and networking, I am also learning to be a salesperson and a startup CEO.
The AwakeTeams business, team, and training platform have only come into being through a continual process of stepping into new and uncertain conditions and finding new ways to respond. Of course, there certainly have also been missed learning opportunities in this process when I have been caught in fear and inertia. Compassion is important here: we do the best we can and will figure out which experiments, iterations, or adapted behaviors are keepers.
Changing conditions require new solutions and different ways of being. What can we do to encourage our “better angels” of openness to change and willingness to experiment and learn?
“The only way out is through.” — Robert Frost
At the individual level, innovation in this period of the pandemic has meant survival. While there has been a lot of lost life from the virus, there has also been great adaptation and survival. And, hopefully, each of us can find examples of personal innovations that have supported our wellbeing and helped us grow and thrive.
Here are some tips and tricks for cultivating personal innovation:
“The moment I let go of it was the moment I got more than I could handle. The moment I jumped off of it was the moment I touched down.” —lyrics by Alanis Morrissette
Organizations as entities also need to innovate to survive. If organizations can not adapt to changing conditions, they cease to be relevant or lose out to competitors who are meeting the changing needs.
And we can’t really separate organizational survival, or thriving, from individual survival and thriving. The functioning of any organization depends upon the individual employees within the organization. The line gets blurred here between individual adaptability and organizational adaptability; the lived experience is actually a reciprocal relationship.
Here are some insights on how organizations can cultivate innovation:
While our heads may spin as we try to take in all the changes that are happening around us, we can develop some individual habits that enable us to find balance and relax our nervous systems. Then we can respond in creative ways that help us adapt during this time of exceptional uncertainty.
As a friend of mine likes to say, what I am really responsible for is sweeping my own corner. So, on my side, yes I will go to that birthday party this weekend! We will be sailing and that will offer plenty of opportunity for experiences of awe and social connection. And, no, I am not ready to go to the dentist yet (practicing self awareness and self compassion for my personal risk barometer).
We also need people and environments that support our habits and personal innovations. Behavior change is hard; those default biological mechanisms we referenced that can shut down learning in response to stress are powerful. Seek out and find — or help create — those environments.
For the whole room to be clean, everyone else needs to sweep their part too. And if we have learned anything from Covid-19 it is that we are all in the “same room”, equally vulnerable to and affected by this global pandemic. We are not in this alone; we affect and are impacted by each other.
We are all stressed and struggling in many ways. It is challenging for each of us to step forward, so let’s figure out how to innovate, individually and collectively, in ways that move us all forward.