Corporate whiplash: Making sense of the last 9 months and finding a stable path forward

Author: Justin Odenbach, Managing Director, CIO Advisory

Over the past three years, the business landscape has been subjected to a series of impactful events: a global pandemic, conflicts in Ukraine, supply chain disruptions, persistent inflation, fluctuating interest rates, and changing global consumer demand. Additionally, technology shocks ranging from cybersecurity to generative AI have added further complications. The result of all this change and challenge? Companies have found themselves resorting to what may appear as contradictory behaviors within remarkably short periods.

From a candidate-driven market to layoffs driving havoc.

Until the third quarter of 2022, recruiting talent and labor shortages consistently ranked among the top concerns for companies, particularly in the technology and tech sectors. Now just two or three quarters later, these same companies are undergoing massive layoffs.

From office perks to the perk of no office.

For many years, companies focused on what office perks could help attract and retain employees—free food, onsite gyms, massages, game rooms, and more. The same companies that relied heavily on corporate offices before the pandemic suddenly found themselves scrambling to invest in remote work and divesting assets to retain talent during the Great Resignation. And now? They are facing the challenge of transitioning back to the office, as they navigate the trade-offs between individual productivity in remote work and the benefits of colocation. Not to mention, they’ve been adapting hardware and security needs along the way with their shifting workforce locations.

Hold your necks for the whiplash.

Consider these bewildering shifts that most large multinational companies have faced in just 9 months:

  • Insourcing, outsourcing, back to insourcing.
  • Office, remote, hybrid, and now a push to return to the office.
  • Decentralize, centralize, decentralize.
  • Layoffs, retaining talent at all costs, and now layoffs again.
  • On-premises, cloud-native, hybrid, on-premises.

Taking nimbleness to a whole new level.

How does any company change direction 180 degrees multiple times? A decade ago, leadership experts extolled the virtues of successfully navigating ambiguity. The focus was on weathering storms and managing change. The ability to effectively operate amid ambiguity became a key differentiator for leaders and their teams. Now, it seems that we have received what we asked for, as corporate leaders demonstrate their willingness to rapidly pivot to address ongoing shocks. However, we find ourselves in a new territory. Making choices is no longer the challenge, but rather absorbing choices that feel like outright contradictions.

Insight into the seismic shifts.

Before diving into each step, it is crucial to reframe this environment as something more than reactionary whiplash. The transitions between seemingly contradictory positions are the natural navigation of polarities.

A polarity refers to a pair of opposites or opposite states of being that exist solely because of their opposite and cannot coexist simultaneously. Examples include inhaling/exhaling or centralizing/decentralizing. Each opposite is defined by its relationship to the other, and neither is inherently good or bad. Each is useful only in the context of both options existing. For instance, if you could only exhale, you would be deprived of oxygen and eventually perish, so you must inhale. If you inhale excessively, you cannot expel accumulated carbon dioxide, resulting in potential harm. Therefore, you must exhale. Neither inhaling nor exhaling is inherently superior, and they are interdependent. The situations mentioned earlier (hiring versus firing, remote versus collocated, centralized versus decentralized) fit this definition.

Companies naturally move through a cycle between the opposites of these pairs, following a predictable pattern. What is happening now is that these understandable moves, which used to occur over longer business cycles, are transpiring at an increasingly rapid pace. The cycles have shortened due to the accelerated feedback loops, available data, and pressures from always-on stakeholders, forcing companies to be more responsive than ever before. There is no insulation from disruptions anymore; they permeate systems swiftly. Inflation affects multiple countries, supply chains span the globe, data interconnects, and decisions are highly visible.

In the 1990s, if a company’s data center experienced an outage, only that company would be impacted. Today, thousands of companies can be affected by a single outage, potentially impacting millions of end customers and suppliers. The scale and visibility of an outage can immediately influence financial markets. What used to be localized economically or geographically is no longer the case. Disruptions are visible everywhere, all the time. As a result, we change course faster than ever before, taking shorter and quicker breaths instead of forcing out giant breaths.

How to stay afloat in an ocean of change.

An apt metaphor for this situation is sailing. Imagine the business world as the vast ocean, with success often requiring sailing directly into the wind. When the wind is against you, progress cannot be made by heading straight into it. Instead, you must maneuver off-angle to the wind, zig-zagging your way around to reach your desired direction.

Now that we have this framework, adapting becomes more feasible. Although most of us may not be admirals making every decision, we can be captains navigating storms, utilizing the wind, and leading our ships across the ocean. Here’s how:

First, look beyond the ship and focus on the horizon. Observe other ships, the sky, and determine the direction of the wind. That’s where you will find the purpose of your company and its mission. By elevating your perspective to the bigger picture, you shield yourself from becoming a victim of changes and instead become a champion. It helps you not focus on the specific change (centralizing or decentralizing) but in understanding the underlying reason behind the chosen course. Only from this enlightened position can you effectively navigate your ship.

Second, set the right direction with your leadership. If the company is heading towards hiring, how can you lead the way while keeping an eye on the horizon and understanding the true purpose behind this decision? How can your unique leadership perspective support the board, the senior executive team, and other stakeholders, demonstrating wisdom and a willingness to tackle challenges? Leadership values the ability to navigate on their behalf. Set the course boldly and communicate it clearly and often. That’s the differentiating behavior amidst this sea of change.

Third, lead your team with empathy and compassion. Your crew may feel seasick. They are constantly being directed back and forth, often without the context you possess. Whether in the office, back at home, or returning to the office, they may lack more information than a simple directive. Their focus is on fulfilling their duties as trained individuals. They seek stability and are likely even resistant to change. Each time you adjust the heading, they experience disruption and perceive change as additional undesirable work and uncertainty. What they need from you is an understanding of their perspective, transparency, and the knowledge that skill in changing direction is just as vital as skill in maintaining direction.

Fourth, never underestimate the power of leading by example. As the saying goes, “More is caught than taught.” Your ability to manage yourself through change sets the example. What you say becomes secondary to what you demonstrate. You must be actively engaged with them, sharing your experiences of how you’ve navigated and weathered storms. Be the one who can see the destination despite the storm and maintain a positive attitude towards reaching it.

But watch out for tidal waves! After all, the ocean will always be the ocean, characterized by storms, wind, rain, and periods of calm. This is the best time in history to sail because we can be more responsive to information and move more swiftly than ever before. This heightened level of responsiveness to market conditions is here to stay. And since you now possess the knowledge to lead across the seas, you are a captain.

If you are seeking assistance in implementing these ideas for you and your team, Unify makes a great co-captain. Contact us. We’re ready to help you weather any storm.