Turbulent Times Demand Dynamic Rules

Circumstances can change rapidly — organizational rules should be designed to change along with them.

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Over the past two decades, business leaders have been confronted with a great deal of upheaval and uncertainty. The COVID-19 pandemic is but the most recent of such events; organizations have also contended with a global financial crisis, significant technological changes, and major political-economic developments, including Brexit and trade wars, thus far in the 21st century. In the future, challenges such as social unrest driven by income inequality, and severe weather caused by climate change, are predicted to cause even more chaos.

These events all signal a much more dynamic environment for business. Yet many of today’s organizational practices and processes were created for comparatively predictable and stable circumstances, with the goal of optimizing long-term efficiency and effectiveness. Recent developments have revealed that many of these practices are ill suited to today’s unpredictable and volatile times. The popular expression “the new normal” describes exactly that — an era characterized by uncertainty that needs to be met with new organizational perspectives and practices.

To prosper in dynamic times, businesses need to change their approach to rule-making and adherence. During the pandemic, some companies stuck to their established rules, to their detriment. For example, the world’s largest pork producer, Smithfield Foods, continued to operate with employees working in close quarters without protective barriers. Many employees came to work sick to earn the “responsibility bonus” the company awarded to workers who did not miss any shifts. The company was forced to shut down multiple plants following COVID-19 outbreaks and was later fined by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration for violations in South Dakota and by Cal/OSHA for violations in California. In contrast, many meatpacking plants throughout the world modified their rules to increase social distancing on production lines and in break rooms, provided paid sick leave, and prohibited the use of temporary workers, all of which helped them continue to operate safely.1

It seems self-evident that when faced with a crisis, organizations should simply modify their policies.

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References

1. See, for example, S. Marshall and C.C. Unger, “Treating Workers Like Meat: What We’ve Learnt From COVID-19 Outbreaks in Abattoirs,” The Conversation, Oct. 13, 2020, https://theconversation.com; and M. Molteni, “COVID-19 Makes the Case for More Meatpacking Robots,” Wired, May 25, 2020, www.wired.com.

2. For a discussion on how to increase employee suggestions, see M. Parke and E.N. Sherf, “You Might Not Be Hearing Your Team’s Best Ideas,” Harvard Business Review, June 4, 2020, https://hbr.org.

3. M. Luca and M.H. Bazerman, “Want to Make Better Decisions? Start Experimenting,” MIT Sloan Management Review 61, no. 4 (summer 2020): 67-73.

4. M. Tonar and E. Talson, “Is the TSA Really Necessary?” Forbes, Jan. 28, 2019, www.forbes.com.

5.Change the Game — but How? Leadership Development,” Daimler, accessed Dec. 14, 2020, www.daimler.com.

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