Why all organisations need a ‘purposeful pause’ in 2020

So, lockdowns are easing, we can connect in larger groups and we can have greater freedom of movement. Before too long, if we do well, people will be physically back at work and travelling from state to state. What a great time to get things back to normal and push forward as hard and fast as possible. Right?

Wrong. We need to take a ‘purposeful pause’ first. What is that and why is it so important and valuable?

At some levels, of course you should get cracking on actions. For example, if revenue has slumped and you need to get it back up as a matter of business viability, then do so.

But if it’s about a more significant issue such as strategic direction or company culture, a purposeful pause is invaluable.

We all know that tactical pauses are helpful. A pause in the middle of a busy day – whether that’s a walk around the block, 10 minutes of meditation, a coffee break or simply an informal chat with someone about non-work matters – creates high quality energy, which increases our resilience as leaders and improves our ability to deal with more complex issues.

If we combine that pause with reflection, it becomes even more powerful. We can ask ourselves four key questions to take us into a learning zone:

  1. What happened (not in terms of steps or actions, but in terms of processes, dynamics, thoughts and feelings)?
  2. Why did it happen?
  3. What can I/we learn from what happened?
  4. How might I/we apply from what happened?

Hopefully, most of us know to ask ourselves the first two questions on a regular basis. But it’s with questions #3 and #4 that we gain the greatest benefits. We should go through this four-step process every time we have a major success, failure or surprise.

If this is powerful at any time, it is vastly more so right now. Why? For two reasons:

  • Our rivers of thinking have really been disrupted so our minds are especially open
  • The scale of disruption means an opportunity to gain massive benefits from pausing and reflecting – and a lost opportunity if we don’t
  • What topics could we reflect on?
  • Examples of unexpected benefits that organisations have observed include:

What topics could we reflect on?

Examples of unexpected benefits that organisations have observed include:

  • We have a heightened sense of community
  • Personal relationships are stronger
  • Teams are more cohesive
  • We are clearer/stronger about our values and beliefs
  • We are valuing people more for their whole selves
  • We have become more outcomes-focused
  • We have shown our ability to respond in a rapid, nimble way
  • We are communicating better
  • We are more environmentally sustainable
  • We are better at working remotely/virtually
  • We have improved our technological literacy
  • We are more supportive of diversity groups
  • We have developed better customer relationships

Examples of domains in which assumptions have been challenged include:

  • Working from home
  • Offices and physical locations
  • The effectiveness of virtual teams
  • The effectiveness of virtual client engagement
  • How we do our work
  • Our speed and flexibility
  • Managing performance
  • Business strategies
  • Cultural values
  • Environmental sustainability/impact

How do we take a purposeful pause, at a whole-of-organisation level?

Using the four learning questions shown earlier, here’s a basic example of the kind of purposeful pause that many of us could do right now, at an individual level:

  1. I thought that virtual working would cause a reduction in team spirit but we ended up being more intimately connected than ever before
  2. It occurred because we saw more of people’s personal lives on Zoom (their rooms, kids, pets, hobbies, household activities, etc) and we talk about this more
  3. I learned that we create an artificial work persona and pretend there isn’t a personal self in this. I learned that when we invest the time in learning more about each other, we enjoy connecting more and develop more intimacy and cohesion
  4. As well as using video on virtual meetings, I think we could find more opportunities to share personal information even if it’s as simple as starting weekly meetings by asking about a highlight from each person’s weekend.

But let’s see what happens when we apply it at a strategic level:

  1. We thought that our business was robust to most kinds of threats, but our revenue has really tanked and we’ve been at risk of insolvency.
  2. We never considered how much of our revenue is tied up in activities that require people to be able to travel and meet face-to-face and how much of it is not guaranteed for any more than three months
  3. We have the opportunity to make ourselves much more resilient in the future. That’s not just about a pandemic, that’s about any exogenous shock
  4. We could develop a subscription model, supporting a virtual service delivery model. We could invest judiciously in this, while taking other steps to bolster our cash reserves

That is just one example. Many organisations will be able to identify insights from their recent experiences that could be transformational in their impact if captured, applied and amplified.

This type of pause can be undertaken on either a small or grand scale. Regardless, it’s valuable to blend multiple approaches, for different benefits and to suit different respondent preferences.

Here’s an example multi-modal enquiry process that Bendelta is currently undertaking for a client:

Method Benefit
Surveys These are a traditional but effective way to get a high volume of responses and cover all topics, in a way that is time-efficient and provides lots of data for analysis
Online Jams These can be a quick and energising way to capture insights, with large numbers of people building on each other’s views and seeing consensus emerge in real time
Speak-up sessions These enable a deeper approach than the online jams as they can be flexibly designed
Insight interviews Those go even deeper and can act as a basis for leader development. These can also be a good way to bring customers into the conversation
Online collaboration forums These can be a democratic, open-ended, and unconstrained way to explore issues deeply and thoughtfully, in one’s own time
Narrative and/or visual activities These can generate powerful personal stories that catalyse individual change and inspire others

Two final points for getting the most from a purposeful pause

Firstly, it’s critical to frame such processes carefully. Such a reflection process should not come across as ‘weren’t we lucky to have a pandemic’ or ‘this is experience has been all positive’. The reality is obviously that this has been a traumatic time for many. Even if one’s organisation has come through relatively unscathed, that may not be the case for individuals, whose loved ones may have lost jobs, become unwell or suffered in some other way. Therefore, the framing must be around

“Within this difficult time, there have been many assumptions that have been challenged, unexpected benefits that have arisen, and things we have learned about ourselves. We want to understand these insights so that we can learn and benefit from them.

Secondly, this process only works if it drives constructive outcomes. Not only should the findings be fed back to the organisation, but there should be a small number of concrete actions which are immediately instigated. The fruits of these initiatives must be communicated early and often, so that they achieve the intent of the purposeful pause, namely, gaining material benefits from the reflective process.

There may never be a better opportunity for organisations to take a purposeful pause. The extreme nature of the pandemic has opened up a wide spectrum of insights, but we will forget them very quickly and easily if they are not captured, crystallised, communicated and amplified.

So, before you press ‘go’, make sure you press ‘pause’.

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