For some time now, I’ve been asking friends and colleagues, “What will the recovery look like?” Most seem to think of it as a “hundred year storm”. When it passes, the sun will come out again and life will return to normal. But I have my doubts. I think we’ll be dealing with a “new normal”, filled with continuing disruptions and reimagining of old business models. I firmly believe that a “new way of doing business” is emerging. One with more Government oversight and intervention, different energy rules, tighter credit and even tighter consumer spending. I also see signs of a new “collaborative mentality”. No, not socialism. That’s an old “ism”. I’m talking about businesses forming more “strategic alliances” where companies share resources, customers and ideas without formally exchanging equity or cash. More efforts to make “more out of less”. More cooperative ventures between government and industry. And a softening of the “zero sum game” we all played in the 80’s and 90’s where every gain I made was at the expense of my adversary and “enemy”. In short, something new we haven’t named yet, where businesses begin to share ideas and resources more openly. Sort of like a new “open code” for business, where everyone is free to “add onto” advances and ideas made by others.
If any of that is true, what will this “new normal” look like? And how will we know it when we see it?
Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, touted that term at the recent Allen & Co. summit of movers and shakers in Sun Valley, Idaho. He said that companies need to “figure out how to be happy and get our lives together in this new configuration,” adding, “You can’t waste money, credit is tight.”
Here’s another article on that subject passed onto me by a friend. It’s written by Bob Buford and suggests we’re entering a “fluid time” filled with “Revolution, Reliance, Resilience and Reserves”. As he states: “The New Normal has arrived and I expect it is here to stay – perhaps the rest of my lifetime. Much is yet to come as I described in my last chapter which was notes from the Aspen Ideas Festival hyper-experts. I suggest you give it a second look.
What I am thinking about in this musing falls in the “OK, what to do about it” category. I am reading a clear, compelling and easy to understand book by international strategist, Joshua Cooper Ramo, appropriately titled, The Age of the Unthinkable: Why the New World Disorder Constantly Surprises Us And What We Can Do About It that frames a good deal of my musing this time. I highly recommend it.
So after digesting the Aspen Ideas Festival, “looking out the window” as Peter Drucker advised, and reading three copyright 2008 and 2009 books on the current context by well-connected global strategists, here is my consolidation of their advice about how to think and what to do about the current mess. For my part, just treat it as “thinking my confusion out loud.” I am certainly no expert – at best a good reader and listener.
1. Revolution – We now live in what one sociologist has called the “Risk Society” – a period of profound uncertainty and constant surprises – new and incalculable risks that we all share in, even if we are not aware of them. My shorthand is “nobody knows.” The New Normal means we must “live with a comfortable fluency with disruptive energy that can change the world.” (Ramo’s words)
We are forced now to assume unpredictability, not stability. Ramo calls it “the sand pile effect” – one more grain of stand (and you can’t predict which one) turns the pile from stable to a cascade, an avalanche. Bear Sterns, Merrill Lynch and Lehman Brothers are kings of the hill one day and bankrupt the next with huge ripple effects. Thousands of lifelong auto dealers are closed down in one week.
Even church, that most seemingly stable of institutions, evolves and adapts at a rapid pace. According to church expert, Alan Hirsh:
“Church is becoming a much more organic, dynamic, and non-institutionalized set of relationships than the old Christendom allows for – more a web, a series of intersecting lines symbolizing networks of relationships, friendships and acquaintances.” The eternal stays firm. The forms are innovative.
2. Reliance – Who do you rely on when the chips are down? Research shows that it is usually friends and peers. Study after study demonstrates that institutional loyalties (to government, corporations, media, church and authority figures across the board) are way down. Faith in God is often more likely to be mediated through peers than through organized religion as the quote above from Alan Hirsh indicates. We see this all the time at Leadership Network as large churches adopt smaller, more personal forms – small groups, home churches, multi-sites.
3. Resilience – Not all hard times are financial in nature.
One of the Ideas Festival speakers was the artist, Chuck Close, a painter of oversized head on portraits like this self portrait.
Linda and I were lucky enough to spend a few minutes over a meal with Close. He is a gentle, patient man who works 365 days a year. Until we met Close, we didn’t know that he was quadriplegic with very little range of motion. He moves about in a compact motorized chair. He’s also dyslexic and has a disability called “face blindness” that causes him difficulty in focusing on the details of faces. And that is what he paints! Close is a paragon of resilience in the midst of multiple calamities that would wipe most of us out psychologically. Here is what he told us direct from my notes: “Everyone needs to feel special. It is a matter of survival. My art saved me from all my disabilities. When I looked around the room at Yale Art School, I couldn’t find myself there. And so I had to define my own space.
“Everything I did in art I did in response to my disabilities. I work with severe limitations. Sometimes I painted with ink on my fingertips. It was like caressing the face of someone I loved. It was tactile.
For those of us who are not destroyed by our disability, it becomes a great source of self-confidence and focus.”
I can’t immediately recall a better example of resilience in the face of adversity. It makes losing money in the stock market seem trivial. What a man!
4. Reserves – The story of Joseph in the Old Testament (Genesis 41) is a great testimony to the wisdom of setting aside reserves. Joseph, with God’s help, interprets a dream for Pharaoh that nobody else can decipher. The kingdom will experience seven plentiful harvests followed by seven years of famine. Pharaoh relies on Joseph as his Chief of Staff to store grain from the plentiful harvest and it saves Egypt from ruin.
Americans have been living on the edge for forty years. Now it looks like ten years of trillion dollar deficits even using the Obama projections which most everybody feels are optimistic. The Chinese have saved 45% of their incomes for years. Now we are the borrowers and they’re the lenders. Quite a reversal!
Sooo that’s what the New Normal looks like to me:
1. Profound uncertainty.
2. Relying more on friends than institutions.
3. Overcoming limitations by “defining your own unique space.”
4. Saving in lieu of spending.
5. Overcoming road blocks – living purposeful lives.”
That’s his version (and mine) of the “new normal”. What’s yours?