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COVID-19 as an (awful, but inescapable) competitive advantage



bu Ashwin Rajan

Update: 17th March - Researchers in Finland seemed to echo these thoughts.

A - hypothetical and contrarian - view on why the superbug crisis will allow some teams to pull away from competition.

This bug is an adaptive and emergent organism with global reach. (Is it spreading faster than Facebook? Has someone done the math?) We are not going to be sure anytime soon if the bug is truly contained. I am starting to believe we should prepare for the bug to be with us all 2020, and for years after.

In spite of the negative fallout , this crisis may have an upside for some teams. It may actually strengthen the competitive advantage of some organisations vis-a-vis others. These advantages will be sector, industry or geography agnostic. They will extend from qualities of teams irrespective of origin, size or industry. I'd like to discuss some of these qualities here.

There was life before COVID-19 and life after it. This is a landmark shift in human affairs as we know it. The post-COVID world's new normal may be ongoing, unpredictable disruption of face-to-face collaboration. This could prompt a major behavior change in how these teams operate. They will then decide to switch to remote / digital collaboration as de facto mode. The convenience and predictability of remote will outweigh the benefits of co-located teams. Being co-located will begin to seem arcane.

This outbreak is an inflection point. It could mark a behavioural shift toward large-scale digital remote collaboration. The shift is away from remote collaboration as 'gap filler' between co-located work. Remote becomes de facto; co-located only when absolutely necessary. It is the basis of an emergent workforce. In this new world, the transacting parties don't feel the need to meet. Many won't ever meet in person during the collaboration / project process, or after. Like in some Hollywood spy movie.

Why this shift?

Potential behavior change reaches a tipping point when options are removed. The pandemic has outright eliminated the co-located option, and tipped existing remote work behavior closer to a full-on shift. In doing so, we begin to see the co-located model's painful, time-consuming dimension. Some teams realise this immediately and naturally. Rather than resist, they embrace the new behavior to actually become more effective than they were before the outbreak.

Update 26th June: This seems exactly what happened at Quora - it becomes a remote-first company!

These teams are somehow more prepared to be NOT reliant on co-located-based collaboration. These teams are also faster and better when working online and remotely.

Such teams will be able to connect with other teams with similar characteristics across geographies, forming new ecosystems.

What would the key qualities - the intrinsic strengths - of such teams be; what resilience borne of this crisis may come from:

  • These teams understand their intrinsic 'why'. They are better aligned on their reason for existence from day one of working together. They are not caught in endless loops chasing foundational and definitional issues - Bureaucrats take note! They share clarity on their core goals. They are mission and purpose-focussed. Intrinsic motivation and rewards drive them. Environmental non-profits and activism groups fall into this category.
  • These teams can advance quickly into novel situations. They can address new challenges. And they do both of these operating as autonomous individuals. They need minimal top-down delegation to make progress. Their delegation, decision-making, trust in skills, and execution style is peer-to-peer.
  • The individuals comprising these teams are good to great communicators. Period. They can hold meaningful and productive dialog on multiple complex issues. They can shift easily between different media - email, chat, phone, images, sketches, documents, spreadsheets, slides, designs, blueprints, specifications, and a whole lot more.
  • These teams are great at working with digital communication and collaboration tools. They've used a lot of such tools. In writing, sketching, speaking, texting, viewing, publishing, designing. They are not tool-dependent though. They are process, competency and workflow driven. They can adapt to new tools fast, while constantly evaluating better options. Fit tools to emerging needs, find the right tool for the job, share, use, discard and move on. Tools support and strengthen their process, not drive it.
  • A new generation of productivity and collaboration products will enter the scene. With increasing AI-power at their core. These new tools will build on their previous generation. They will likely be built by the people skilled at using them.
  • These teams are skilled at working in asynchronous mode. Comfortable with starting and stopping complex tasks. Then continuing where they left off without the need to 'warm up'. And hit the road running, producing valuable output right away. When you are not syncing in physical space, jumping in and out of tasks will happen as those tasks arise. Personal cognitive ability and performance rhythm creates its own schedule. Scheduling itself will become an art.
  • They have strong multi-threaded thinking and multi-tasking abilities. They can process many ideas, tasks or threads of thought at the same time.
  • Work hours go for a complete toss. If work can happen where you are, then the temptation to work at odd hours, at night, on weekends, during parties and in bed will be high. Some will resist the temptation. Some will succumb. Some of the latter may become competitive because of it, within limits. This may reinforce their behaviour to break and experiment with work-hour patterns. A self-perpetuating cycle begins.
  • Finally, being able to blur the line separating work and relaxation will become an advantage. Again, within limits. We start to see a merger of 'work' / 'play' and 'work' / 'recreation'.
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