We currently exist within a world that is unfrozen from the constraints of routine, habits, and norms. By leveraging this moment to explore, experiment, and learn, organizations and their community stakeholders have a unique opportunity to redefine the scope of their priorities and collective actions.
I use the word unfrozen deliberately. In 1947, behavioral psychologist Kurt Lewin proposed a process model of change that denoted three stages: unfreezing, change, and refreezing. Lewin built his model from the assumption that individuals view change as undesirable because of its inherent uncertainty and that organizations are unlikely to change because of the social and financial risks associated with deviating from the status quo. The first requisite step is to create the conditions for change and unfreeze. Lewin espoused that only then — through increases in pressures that facilitate the need for adjustment or transformation, and by reducing resistance to and tension from the prospect of alteration — will change become a viable next stage.
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Usually unfreezing is slow and time consuming, but the COVID-19 pandemic has effectively thawed social and professional spheres of life in a matter of months. A prime example is how the pandemic has laid bare the racial inequities sewn into the fabric of U.S. history. Protests and civil unrest following the disproportionate loss of life of Black and brown American citizens from the virus, and preexisting conditions such as police brutality, illustrate the disintegration of the status quo and a broader shift of perceptions and behaviors.
This unfreezing process has brought with it the possibility for radical change: We are living in a moment rich with opportunities to fundamentally improve how we live, how we relate to society, how we interact with government, and how we do business.
Four Top Areas Ripe for Change
Leaders have an unprecedented opening to develop new approaches to interpreting and deriving meaning and purpose from chaotic events. Specifically, the purpose of the organization could grow to include social reforms, equity, and a recalibration of health-wealth trade-offs.
Consider four major areas within the U.S. through which decision makers can enact radical change. It’s important to note that this list is far from complete and that my aim is not to propose solutions. Rather, I want to highlight how unfreezing has created extraordinary malleability across the following systems.
1. Our public health system. Currently, hospitals in the U.S. are revenue-oriented businesses (even when they are tax-exempt nonprofits). They function much like hotels: Beds equal occupancy rates, which are linked to revenue. The high volatility in demand and supply brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the constraints of this business model; some hospitals were overwhelmed while others were put out of business.
Changes to our public health system could offer us greater alignment to social welfare concerns. It could also allow us greater flexibility to adjust and respond to future crisis events.
2. Our educational system. The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed how intertwined economic activity is to educational structures: People cannot go back to work until their kids go back to school. The burden of juggling work, family, home schooling, and many other tasks across personal and professional spheres is unsustainable, especially for working mothers.
The inconsistencies in internet access and social support that are responsible for hampering students’ and educators’ ability to pivot to online platforms are insidious barriers that could be removed. These long-known problems are avoidable if the right investments are made in education and internet infrastructure across the country.
3. Our supply chains. The lack of access to personal protective equipment and pharmaceuticals has made it abundantly clear how globally distributed our supply chains are — and that we lack control in those operational networks.
A shift to more domestic production of what was once fully conditional on global actors represents one potential change. Another shift could be for organizational decision makers to reenvision what should be distributed and to whom. Consider how the crisis has exacerbated both widespread food waste and the acute food insecurity many Americans experience — especially children. Organizations, particularly those with market power, could come to believe that this type of waste and inequality is unacceptable.
4. Our environmental system. The COVID-19 pandemic has provided a glimpse into a possible future — one that showcases blue skies clear from smog and the reappearance of wildlife in their (restored) natural habitats. If such animal sightings are to become a new normal, global collaboration in addressing climate change is necessary. The next pandemic, we have to remember, is not too far behind this one.
Radical, upstream changes that fundamentally alter the design of our current social and economic systems represent a pathway to addressing the time-sensitive, catastrophic problem of climate change. Some urban designers, for instance, have questioned the desirability of densely populated cities. Redesigning the very nature of our homes and workspaces, along with focusing on renewable technologies, might begin to shift our collective priorities to improving the health of our planet.
The Challenge of Paralysis
Each of these areas — often considered intractable barriers to change that are too complex to address — represents one tangible way through which major change might escalate to generate a future that is more equitable and sustainable than our current circumstances.
However, the challenge of this moment — of existing within an unfrozen world — is decision-making paralysis. It can feel like too many variables are changing too quickly to be grasped and integrated into a coherent plan.
The lack of a coherent direction and an inspirational vision on how to deal with the pandemic, for example, has made many of us feel anxious and overwhelmed. These difficulties have been exacerbated by our inability to connect interpersonally because of social distancing. Add to that the economic toll of unemployment and the demise of local businesses, as well as the strain of witnessing loss of life and experiencing social unrest.
These factors have at once profoundly destabilized our world order and collectively called for greater compassion, equity, and transparency, both domestically and globally. Consider the interconnectedness of our struggles: They center on our human desire to understand, be inspired, connect with others, survive, and thrive.
Now is the time to take action. Now is the time for leaders, public servants, and members of society to work toward improving essential systems.
What new normal will you create?
Editor’s Note: An adapted version of this article appears in the Fall 2020 print edition.