Coronavirus Pandemic Demonstrates How Crises Accelerate Change

Keeping Pace Is a Key Element of Successful Crisis Response            

12/26/2020 – – The days between Christmas and December 31 are usually uneventful. Other than New Year’s Eve festivities, this time is characterized by lazy vacation days, watching reruns on television and sending back presents to Amazon.

But that sure wasn’t the case during the last week of 1999.

The anticipated joy of a new century was put on hold by a crisis computer geeks labeled the “Y2K bug.” You may recall that the world was convinced Armageddon would arrive at 12:01, January 1, 2000. The problem was with the two-digit date field in most operating computers. Without four digits, when the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, the field would read 00, not 2000. All would come to an end. Systems would crash, sensitive medical equipment would stop working, financial networks would go crazy.

In the United States alone, companies, organizations and municipalities spent a fortune —  more than $100 billion according to the U.S. Department of Commerce — bringing computer systems into Y2K compliance. The response to this perceived crisis (I say “perceived” because the potential meltdown turned out to be way overblown) accelerated the upgrading of computer hardware and software by a full generation, at least five years by most estimates.

Y2K dramatically demonstrated the fact that crises accelerate change.

We’re all living through an even better example of this phenomenon right now. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, all sorts of things that were coming, but still years away, are now facts of life. Advances in remote learning and working from home were certainly on the horizon. But evolutionary change has become revolutionary because of the COVID-19 threat.

Being able to deal with the velocity of change during a crisis is one determinant of success or failure. Peloton, Zoom, Amazon, Netfix, and DoorDash, are some of the big winners in this dynamic environment. The COVID crisis created clear opportunities for them. But what about restaurants, airlines, cruise ships, commercial real estate companies and live theaters? They’re dealing with far more challenges than opportunities.

In an earlier blog I shared the wisdom of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius:

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.    

I advise my crisis clients to embrace this positive mindset and the inevitability of change. Restaurants faced with indoor seating restrictions must reimagine their takeout offerings to maintain customers and build future traffic. Real estate companies leasing office space must get creative with floor configurations and lease terms to adapt to changing organizational structures. Colleges with locked down campuses must develop compelling distance learning packages that will be appealing to new audiences even after the pandemic has passed.

Just as it did in 1999, crisis response has quickened the clock. The world that emerges in 2021 in many ways will look like the world we could have expected to see in 2025. Those keeping up with this dizzying pace of change will thrive.

Happy New Year!

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