The new normals: not just one new normal..

The idea of one ‘new normal’ is a dangerous blind alley

writes Ben Lee.

It seems increasingly likely the COVID-19 pandemic is already leaving a permanent legacy. Had the crisis lasted only a few days or weeks then perhaps a ‘return to normal’ might have been possible.

However, it is more than 80 days since the first UK death and the crisis phase looks set to last for many months more. It is now our view there will be no ‘back to normal’. Like many others we believe a ‘new normal’ is taking shape already and will become visible as the crisis subsides.

Added to this, the speed and adaptiveness shown by public services – in shielding the vulnerable, supporting businesses, creating car-free zones – highlights the opportunity to accelerate innovation and tackle long-recognised challenges.

The prospect of a shift in societal values and ways of living creates great excitement. Across the political spectrum is speculation that humanity (or Western democracies at least) could emerge from COVID-19 into a ‘better’ normal – kinder and more collaborative, fairer, more participatory, more energised to act on environment and climate, and in which we are more empowered to enact change.

Maybe. But the crisis is also shifting and fracturing in other directions; greater concentration of wealth as smaller companies and vulnerable households suffer; less democratic accountability as Governments and public bodies act more boldly; a generational weakening of public finances at the expense of the future safety net. There are rumblings of a backlash against the scientific advice that spurred Government action, which could in turn spill into a broader backlash against science including climate science.

I believe the coming months bring a great risk of assuming ‘new normal’ will be that which best reflects our own values. Similarly, there is a risk we ignore the scale of the fight for ideas during this period of flux – from which ‘new normal’ will be forged.

We need to look at new normals

In the work I’m involved in this means that strategic discussions should resist focusing on a single ‘new normal’ and instead try to explore multiple new normals – paying attention to those which conflict with the values, assumptions, and mental models held by us or the people we work with. This is easily done, using thoughtful evidence-based scenarios.

It is also imperative we distinguish between the things we can influence because we have agency (choices over the shape of our own organisations, eligibility criteria for services, alliances we join), and things which affect us but which we cannot directly influence. We can do this by mapping out factors we are close to and have control of, and those further from our influence.

Also, at the front of our minds is that no-one working today has worked through anything like the crisis we are currently in. We are all learning what to do. Besides patience and humility, most of all this means that any activity we are engaged in is as much about learning, as it is about deciding. We can do this by structuring discussion around action learning principles and enabling those we work with to remain connected as peer learning networks (see our paper on capturing the learning).

What we can do to help

With this in mind, over the coming weeks Shared Intelligence will seek opportunities to create tools and frameworks to help place-based organisations build strategies which are clear in the kinds of futures they hope to achieve, but resilient whatever kind of normal emerges. In particular, this will include:

  • Facilitating conversations with clients and their stakeholders to map the factors they can influence and the agendas they can put their weight behind
  • Revisiting recent projects to test how our clients’ approaches will fare in a divergent but equally possible scenarios

Read the other essays in our ‘new normals’ series here.

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