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The surprising new competencies for CIOs in the new normal.

As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages our people and our economy, businesses are discovering that it is not enough to be efficient and effective.

This is because the new normal for the pandemic means constant changes in business and market conditions, and rapid (sometimes overnight) shifts in operating rules. Today you may be able to sell a product, and tomorrow you may not, and vice versa. Today your staff may have to work from home or not work at all. Tomorrow you may be setting up your factory and offices for socially distanced and sanitized work. Being efficient at something that is no longer useful or even required is a waste of energy. And being effective at producing products that you cannot sell turns our concept of competence on its head.

The pandemic new normal requires new competencies. So far, I think there are four of them, but remember that this is likely to change too. Organizations need flexibility, innovation, agility, and resilience if they are to survive or even thrive during the pandemic. These new competencies are not trivial to develop and nurture, neither are they just buzzwords that have little real meaning. And here’s why:

Flexibility means bending without breaking: This ability has long been known in the natural world, of course, but now it must move to the business world. Yeah, yeah, you might say, heard it before. But if you think about it, being flexible means undoing many of the ways of work that administrators, managers, and executives hold dear. It means that decision-making centers must shift to people who do not usually make decisions. It means that the time to make decisions must be dramatically shortened. It means that the executive team must lead and not manage. (They must do more thinking, analyzing, deciding, and communicating, and less doing, implementing, controlling, and correcting.) And if decisions must be taken far from the center of power, it means that the culture of the organization is one of the most important flexibility and competitive tools they have.

Innovation means doing something that has never been done before. The creation of something new, either for customers or inside the organization, will inevitably cause problems and upset applecarts. Either the new idea does not fit with our current way of doing things or with our current products, or it upsets the status quo and power structures. People with something to lose will hate it and will undermine it. (Organizations have a wonderful immune system – but it kills new ideas as if they were a virus.) True innovation requires organizational tolerance, which has cultural, governance, leadership, and command and control implications. True innovation cannot be instructed to happen. Ask yourself how many innovations have been implemented in your organization recently. Then ask how long they took. Then ask if it was only the COVID-19 crisis that allowed them to happen. If the answer is that you need a crisis before you can innovate, then perhaps innovation is not a cultural norm.

Agility means doing it quickly. We’re not talking about the Agile development method here – we’re talking about organizational agility. Most organizations are not agile. They require the strategy to identify the need for something, a plan to formalize the idea, the budget to allow that idea to happen, and quality control, and marketing departments to approve the idea, the resources to be made available to develop and implement the idea. Finally, they need on-site people to change so that the idea can succeed. This is a cynical view certainly, but look at your organization and ask if it is true or false. So to be agile needs organizations to change their strategy, planning, funding, marketing, and many other departments. Each of these departments may resist this change.

Resilience is the ability to absorb disruptions and changes and carry on. It is a complex-adaptive concept. A complex-adaptive system is comprised of many independent parts that can identify a change or need and respond independently to accommodate the change or need. This, in turn, will cause other independent parts to change as well. There is no central control – it is a self-organizing system. This is the modern definition of organizational resilience, and some organizations call these independent parts self-managed teams. Resilience is not about having rigid processes and controls or having a heavy bureaucracy – these are the things that kill resilience by reducing the ability to respond independently and quickly.If you’re a skilled thinker, you will realize that the competencies of flexibility, innovation, agility, and resilience mean deep changes to the organization.

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