Why we need ‘split-screen thinking’ to manage change

Written by
Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive, RSA

08 Sep 2020

08 Sep 2020 • by Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive, RSA

Leaders will require a dual mindset over the coming months, writes RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor.

High-level uncertainty will characterise the months – and possibly the years – to come. Management thinkers advocate ‘split-screen thinking’ to help navigate this, in the form of a two-pronged mindset, with real-time adaptation on one side and longer-term strategising on the other. 

From engagement with a wide range of organisations, the RSA has identified four ways of looking at the various adaptations made during COVID-19 lockdowns: 

  1. Things that changed during the pandemic but won’t last after the crisis; for example, clapping for NHS workers on Thursdays, or the government’s furlough scheme. Here, the point is not to try to hold on to crisis response but to learn from it. 
  2. Changes we will want to sustain, such as the digital ‘levelling up’ that has occurred within organisations everywhere, from the NHS to SMEs. The action here is to consider the implications of this shift; for example, digital exclusion will be much more acute in a digital-only world. 
  3. Processes that stopped during the crisis which we may decide not to restart. For example, requiring people to attend meetings in person or demanding that charities compete to win contracts before they can be funded to provide a service. Here, we must contemplate how we avoid returning to practices that were unnecessary or counterproductive. 
  4. Processes that were halted but will restart post-crisis. 

Three imperatives for leaders 

The upcoming period will be one of unprecedented pressure on leaders. We will face high expectations (“why can’t we change, we did it in the crisis?”) and impatient demands (for example, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement) at a time of intense challenge, when our organisations may be fighting for survival. 

Crisis can be a time of invention, but how can we adapt and innovate while dealing with risks around health and safety, or the public expectations placed on organisations that have had to draw on taxpayer support to survive? Adding to this, the pandemic saw hierarchy subverted in various ways as leaders managed from their kitchens and many organisations worked in a flatter, more agile manner. Yet, in the face of incredibly tough choices, leaders will have to lead. 

In response to these vast challenges, there are three imperatives: 

Be true to your purpose. The organisational commitment to values is only really tested during times of challenge. If your colleagues see their leaders approach hard choices using the organisation’s stated values, they are more likely to respect decisions. However, if values are discarded in the fight for survival, the consequence will be disillusionment and greater resistance. 

Engage, engage, engage. Regardless of how hard things are, treat all staff and key stakeholders as partners in change. Not only will this keep people on side, but you will also give them, individually and collectively, a chance to voice their own ideas about how to adapt. 

Ensure that leaders get the support they need. This is perhaps the most important point of the three. No organisation benefits from decisions made by people who are strung out and exhausted. 

Do all this and, while we will not emerge from the current crisis unscathed, we will at least be wiser. 

Matthew Taylor is chief executive of the RSA and author of Good Work: the Taylor review of modern working practices. He was formerly chief advisor on political strategy to Tony Blair. The RSA is working with a range of organisations to understand how crisis can lead to positive change. To learn more, visit the RSA website or email Matthew at: matthew.taylor@rsa.org.uk // @RSAMatthew

This article is from ‘Adapting is thriving’ – our exclusive e-book produced in partnership with Michael Page. To download the full e-book, which features insights from leading thinkers in the employment space on the post-pandemic workplace, click here

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