“We can ignore reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.”― Ayn Rand
Innovation workers, organisational changemakers and transformation leaders grow frustrated when leaders ignore their warnings that a storm is coming. These storms have many guises, disruption from agile startups, shifts in consumer behaviours or even the organisational drag from legacy IT infrastructure. Covid 19 will prove an accelerant for the force of the storms to come.
Despite ample warnings, extensive literature, voluminous studies and statistical evidence that the topple rate of organisations is increasing, leaders still focus on and optimise the business as it is today. Our guest on the Innovation show this week is Elvin Turner, author of “Be Less Zombie”. Elvin tells us, “Every time we focus on today, which is our comfort zone, we are robbing from the future and that is not great stewardship. Leadership is about running today and exploring tomorrow.”
So what is going on? This Thursday Thought looks at one of the many contributing factors, Normalcy Bias.
“Milling Around” is a term that describes those people who wander around dazed and confused asking “what is going on?”, even when someone tells them to evacuate, or to take shelter, they move on to the next person asking others the same question. First responders prepare for this reaction, because this group of people can slow them down. In times of crisis, these people are literally a millstone around your neck. In transformation work, we experience people like this all the time. “Askholes” (albeit slightly harsh) are those characters who ask lots of questions about innovation and/or self development, but rarely take any meaningful action.
Fail to Prepare, Prepare to Fail
When a natural disaster strikes you can divide people into two dominant groups. Those who prepared ahead of time and those who did not. In corporate disaster there are also two groups. Those organisations that explore tomorrow and those who exploit today. In the book “Stall Points”, authors Matthew S. Olson and Derek van Bever, report that once a company experiences a major stall in its growth, it has less than a 10% chance of full recovery. Like those survivors in a crisis, the organisations who adapt to emerging market realities before they become widespread are the ones who survive.
Even during a crisis as much as 70% of people react calmly, as if there is nothing major happening. Psychologists refer to this as normalcy bias, while first responders call it negative panic. Normalcy bias is our tendency to respond to threat warnings with disbelief or minimisation, and to underestimate the effects of a disaster. It may sound familiar to some of us in this era of the Covid-19 pandemic.
John Leach researches the psychology of survival. His research shows that and 75% of people find it impossible to reason during a disaster, while 15% panic. A mere 15% of people prepare for the worst ahead of time. These are the people who have read the safety leaflet before the flight takes off, they’ve built the shelter before the hurricane or they wear the mask during a pandemic. These people don’t wait until the disaster is upon us to make the changes. They heed the words of John F. Kennedy, “The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining.”
I share all this to highlight the correlation between how we can be proactive in a natural disaster and how we can prepare for economic disruption. There is always a storm coming, there will be another pandemic, another recession, another personal crisis. We can be the ostrich and stick our heads in the sand and hope it goes away, but that only papers of the cracks.
So where does it leave the corporate innovator?
Those who minimise normalcy bias take action while others don’t. This is as much the case for life-threatening disasters as it is for organisational survival. In any crisis, the brain goes through a predictable procedure before the body acts, cognition, perception, comprehension, decision, implementation, and then action. This is how we make sense of the chaos. There is no way to bypass the process, but you can practice these steps to make voluntary that which is normally involuntary. The role of the changemaker is to cry wolf, the changemaker is the innovation drill sergeant to scenario plan for utopia and for dystopia. It can be a demoralising role, but a major part of the job is to cry wolf, repeatedly, ad nauseam. Just make sure the CEO is not an “askhole”.
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Our guest on the Innovation Show is Elvin Turner, the author of “Be Less Zombie How great companies create dynamic innovation, fearless leadership and passionate people.”
Based on 10 years of research, his book goes behind the scenes of some of the world’s most innovative companies and decodes the tools, hacks and approaches that help their managers systematically spark ingenuity, agility, and profitable creativity at scale.
It presents a pragmatic ‘how-to’ guide for any team or organisation that needs to adapt its culture, processes, leadership and decision-making for an age of increasingly unpredictable and rapid change.
Have a listen: