Learning from lockdown: accelerating change without creating a crisis

Rocket ship ready for lift off
Can we accelerate the pace at which organisations change?

The Chief Digital Officer of one financial services firm described lockdown to me as ‘three years of digital transformation in just three weeks’.

Normally, people in his position complain about the slow pace of change. But every business I’ve spoken to discovered that, during lockdown, it could transform faster than it thought possible.

Some some shifted services online, some managed massive changes in demand, and others created new services or business models.

Over the past few months, I’ve asked leaders to describe the changes their organisations were going through. I wanted to understand how the crisis was changing businesses, and what they could learn from each other.

Was the accelerated pace of change a unique event, or could it be replicated in normal times?

Looking for sustainable change

A lot of the factors behind accelerated change came down to crisis management. Lockdown was gruelling for everyone.

One executive I spoke to spent those first few weeks starting her day at 7am and finishing at 11pm to shift a national business online.

Another described the intensity of moving from a pitch in Southampton, to giving evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee in Westminster, to a board meeting in Cambridge all in one day. Working via video allows you to be in three places in one day.

Some of the speed was due to suspension of normal rules of working in a time of crisis. That's left many organisations with 'quick fix' changes that now need to be re-worked to make them robust.

Much of the increased pace of change was due to staff being redeployed to boost the urgent and essential work.

While people can feel rightly proud of their efforts, none of these things is sustainable for organisations or individuals.

Some clues

But among the extraordinary measures, there were hints of a positive force that accelerated change.

All the organisations I spoke to said they’d seen a surprising increase in employee engagement.

At a time when management and staff couldn’t meet face to face, individually, or in groups, the staff felt better connected to the business. People felt like they were part of a company-wide team.

My contacts spoke about the clarity that the crisis brought. Everyone was focussed on the same goal, despite their different roles. They contrasted it with normal operations when different agendas were in play.

Another clue was in the way communication changed. CEOs started to send regular messages to the entire organisation setting out goals, issuing guidance, and praising progress.

The level of communication was so high that some of the people I spoke to worried about over communication.

Nevertheless, attendance at company ‘town hall meetings’ and briefings rocketed.

Three common threads: cohesion, clarity, and communication.

The Advantage

In his classic book, The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni describes his investigation into what sets high-performing companies apart from average performers.

Lencioni highlights those three things - cohesion, clarity, and ‘overcommunication’ - as the advantage that high performers have over the rest. It’s an advantage that those organisations take care to cultivate and grow.

Lockdown showed everyone what it can be like to work in an organisation that has The Advantage.

Keeping the magic alive

When we look beyond crisis management, there is a lesson we can benefit from. If organisations can find the one thing that binds everyone together, that creates focus, and can communicate that, then they can focus energy and accelerate change.

In my experience, there is something that matters to all organisations. It makes them relevant; it makes them valuable; and it makes each employee’s work meaningful. That thing is helping their customers.

A few years ago, my colleagues conducted some research into how to improve a local council’s social care services. They spent time talking to people in vulnerable situations to understand their needs and expectations.

When they reported their findings, they invited management and back office staff to listen to their findings.

For many of those staff, it was the first time that they’d seen the impact their work had. They saw photos, quotes, and heard personal stories.

At last, staff could connect their daily experience of processing paperwork with the impact they could have on people’s lives. They came away energised.

For me, this is the hidden value of user research. Human beings want to help each other. Bringing people closer to their customers makes their work personal and gives it meaning.

You don’t need a crisis to give a sense of urgency and raise engagement. You need to show people the human impact


Creating that sense of urgency starts with the senior leadership team. When the leadership is aligned behind a single goal, the whole organisation benefits.

When we bring senior leaders together to watch their customers, you can see their departmental agendas dissolve. The conversation is no longer about ‘my department’, it’s about how ‘we can fix this’. It’s a team building exercise like no other.

What’s more, they leave with human stories about real customers. That makes their task of communicating the need for change simple.

That’s The Advantage, right there.

Two hours a month

In the US, researcher and educator Jared Spool has put a number on it. He says that if team members spend around two hours a month watching customers, then that team will deliver a significantly enhanced user experience.

Despite social distancing, it’s still possible to spend time listening to customers and watching them through videoconferencing and screen sharing. And because you no longer require colleagues to travel to a user research venue, it’s easier to bring people together to watch user research.

Learning from lockdown

All of the organisations I’ve spoken to have said that lockdown proved they need to accelerate their programmes of digital transformation. There are gaps that need filling, and services that need improving.

But what lockdown also did was to show organisations the transformative power of a unifying mission. And you don't need a crisis to foster a sense of unity and urgency. Accelerating change begins with spending more time watching your customers.

Giles founded cxpartners with Richard Caddick in 2004. He's author of 'Simple and usable' and an invited speaker at design conferences around the world.