It is too easy to look back on 2020 as a terrible year – full of pain, loss, uncertainty and fear – and to discard it, moving on without a backwards glance. It is too easy because looking deeper is hard. Learning is hard. And deep learning is the hardest of all.
In a sense, 2020 invited us all to look deeper. We were out of our comfort zones. Our familiar routines collapsed and we were left to reconfigure our working lives in spaces and circumstances where there were no templates or useful best practices to deploy. Our work lives collided with our home lives in unfamiliar ways. For too many of us, paid work became precarious. For too many, businesses survival became the only strategic intent. And too many people died.
We were invited to look deeper because of the need to make sense of it all. Of course, we could take the easy route and decide to learn nothing. We could deny that anything deeply important happened and hope that everything will return to how it was. We could ignore the need to make sense of our experience, and to change how we work, how we live, how our companies operate, and how our society functions. But if we fail to learn from our experiences then we are doomed to repeat the patterns that led us into this struggle in the first place. Learning is always optional. But it is always fundamental to the process of change. As we say at Impact, “No learning, no change.”
As we move into a new year we do so full of hope that this one will be better than the last. But hope is not a strategy. If we want 2021 to be a better year, then we have to seize the invitation to learn from our experience and approach the future with new wisdom. We have to make conscious choices about what learning we will take with us and what outdated or unhelpful beliefs we will leave behind.
Personally, the most important thing I learned in 2020 was that we need to ensure that we keep humanity at the heart of everything we do. The pandemic brought us together in all sorts of different ways. Whether in neighbourhoods, in families, in communities, or in organisations, we were repeatedly reminded of how important we are to each other.
Ask anyone what they missed most about their working lives in 2020 and they will talk about the connection with colleagues – those face-to-face everyday interactions that are so central to our wellbeing, identity and purpose. It turns out that we don’t just work with our colleagues, we work for our colleagues; we are in it for each other. In other words, it’s our relationships that bring meaning to our lives.
For me, 2020 invited us to see all organisations as they truly are: just groups of people working in service to other groups of people. People are at the heart of everything, in all their wonderful and mysterious complexity. It also invited us to recognise that our hearts, our love, and our compassion, are at the centre of our humanity. We need to put the people back at the core of our companies, to see the power of community, collaboration and connection as the reason why we do what we do, as well as the route to successfully doing it. People are not an asset to the company; they are the company.
In 2020, we saw the best parts of ourselves rise to the challenge: the strengthening of communities; the commitment of our healthcare professionals; the companies that pivoted to support others through the new circumstances and uncertainties. I want to take all those moments we inspired each other into 2021 and make that a new normal.
How to put the humanity back into our organisations
With a renewed focus on human-centred organisations, we need to understand how to put the humanity back into every part of what our companies do. Here are three examples of how this can be done:
Human-centred organisational design
Too many organisations aren’t designed deliberately. Instead, they just follow a standard form and are designed with hierarchies, specialist departments, top-down control and more. In our work we always talk about the need for organisational structure to follow purpose. If we put people back at the heart of what all organisations do and how they do it then we must adjust our designs so that people can flourish. There are many experiments out there and lots of great insights into what might work for your context. Let’s redesign our organisational structures by putting our humanity at the heart of them.
Impact are experts in leadership development. The primary challenge facing all leaders is the challenge of leading people, but too many duck this responsibility by choosing to focus on leading work and projects instead. Human-centred leadership is a renewed call for leaders everywhere to build the capabilities to lead people (and, in turn, be led by them). This requires skills in empathy. Leaders need to understand the humanity in their people and be able to build trust and strengthen the fabric of relationships so that they can build organisations that are collaborative, compassionate, agile, creative and innovative. All of those things start with human-centred leaders encouraging and supporting the best from everyone. This is what we mean when we talk about liberating human potential.
Almost all organisations have had to demonstrate agility in the face of the pandemic. The deeper truth that has emerged is that organisations cannot be agile – people can. No organisation can adapt and learn if its people can’t adapt and learn. We need to stop thinking about organisational change as some kind of mechanistic fiddling with structures and workflows and start thinking about it as a human-centred process that starts and ends with people (employees and customers).
There are many, many things that I want to take with me into 2021, but a human-centred approach to everything we do is central to the changes that I think we need to make. We have to live, work and learn together as a singular force striving for a better future for all.
Learning to do this is hard, because it is deep learning. But 2020 confronted us, above all, with the need to learn, adapt, and focus on what is important (and let go of what isn’t). Individually, collectively, and organisationally, we were invited to learn from our experience. We must now turn to each other and move forward with the wisdom forged through this difficult and painful experience, and together, make 2021 the year we all need it to be.
Happy New Year.
Grahame Broadbelt is a communications and R&D expert.