Every crisis the words “never waste a good crisis” pop up. The COVID-19 crisis is no exception to this. And along with these words, there is action too. We see it practiced in business, where after years of slow development, working from home is suddenly accepted. We see it in education, where online education takes a sudden flight. And we see it in government, for example in the EU trying to use this crisis to assemble the budget for creating a greener and more digital Europe.
The words date back to Winston Churchill’s “never let a good crisis go to waste,” when he argued that the United Nations would never have existed without World War II. He had a point and so do the many people who bring in these words today. But what is it about crises that makes them such strong accelerators of change?
A good starting point to understand what is going on, is David K. Hurst’s 1995 book Crisis & Renewal: Meeting the Challenge of Organizational Change. As he convincingly argues in that book, crisis is the driving force behind any significant change—renewal. The main reason, he continues, is that a crisis transforms organizations from a stable “performance mode” into a more flexible “learning mode.”
In performance mode, organizations consist of people performing certain tasks within given structures and systems in return for compensation. In learning mode, these same people work in more flexible roles in teams and networks with recognition as primary return. In other words, while many things are largely set in stone in the everyday performance mode, a crisis shakes up accepted beliefs, structures and routines, thereby creating a temporary, more flexible “in-between” organization that needs to reinvent itself.
That is all well and it explains the mechanism by which a crisis facilitates change and renewal. But it is perhaps a bit theoretical. To translate it to practice, we can identify three key reasons why a crisis like the current one is the ideal moment for change: a practical, an intellectual and a social reason.
Practical Reason: You Have to Change Anyway
The first reason why crisis is such an important driver for change, is a very pragmatic one: you have to change anyway. Most people don’t want change. It disturbs their jobs, it creates uncertainty and takes them out of their comfortable routines. The downsides are clear and there is no significant reason to change. This means that, as long as things proceed in the normal, conventional way, change is hard.
Crisis changes all of that. Suddenly change is not a choice anymore. One simply has to adapt in order to survive. This means that change will happen almost instantly. Some of those changes may be temporary and be reversed once the peak of the crisis is over. Smart leaders, though, make changes for the long run. They don’t just make temporary fixes, but use the crisis as an opportunity to renew the organization in a way that makes it better fit for the future—one has to change anyway, so why not do it properly.
Intellectual Reason: It Shows Change Is Possible
A second reason why this and other crises are such important drivers for change is a more intellectual one. The fact that an organization actually has to change (see the previous point) has an effect on people’s minds and specifically on their ability to imagine the possibility of change. During crisis, they suddenly see that something they took for granted and of which they never thought it would be possible to change, can actually change.
This is an important effect with possible long-term impact. Once the crisis is over and the organization returns to a “new normal”—to performance mode again, memory remains. For at least a couple of years, one can refer back to the crisis and remind people that change was possible at that time. And that if it was possible then, it is possible now too. So, a crisis can significantly open up people’s perceived ability to change.
Social Reason: It Creates Momentum
The third reason why crisis is a key driver for change has a social character. During crisis, people feel more connected to each other. Old disputes and disagreements move to the background and people become more united in the face of crisis. This doesn’t apply to panic-level life-threatening crises such as being on a sinking ship—in those situations people just look after themselves and their loved ones. But in less immediate forms of crisis such as COVID-19, we clearly see it.
While the previous effect is a long-term effect, the social effect is short-lived. The feeling of connectedness and the willingness to solve problems together builds up quickly in the early phases of the crisis, but once the peak seems to be over, it quickly evaporates too. And once it evaporates, momentum is lost.
Looking at the current crisis, this seems to be the point we are at today. Now that in most countries the peak of the crisis seems to be over, old disputes and disagreements reappear. This suggests that, unless the number of infected people increases again, the momentum of this particular crisis is already over. But there always is a next crisis to take advantage of.
This post was published earlier on my forbes.com page.