In the future, when we try to assess the true cost of COVID, it will be relatively easy to first count the number of people who died and look at how the economy shrank. From there on it will get harder to value. We will need to grapple with second-order costs such as the increased burden on mental health services, tighter border security and repatriating marooned citizens. Then the trickier third-order costs come into play. Think long-term effects of home-schooling, the sharp erosion of company culture, diminished intimacy with people we love and the cost of loneliness. The list of COVID costs is impossibly long, but even if we could put a dollar figure on these items we would probably still miss an even more subtle and theoretically greater cost to count: the value of all the ideas that we never had because we were completely pre-occupied by the pandemic.
Today’s business world is largely in a state of directionless panic and is struggling to think beyond COVID. We are drowning in pseudo-expert opinions on what it all means, and instead of thinking about it for ourselves, we trauma-scroll hours away on news feeds or while away days on insight webinars. Adapt or die has become the spirit of the times, so we say the word ‘pivot’ a lot without any real sense of what we are pivoting on, nor where we are pivoting to. In this fog of facts, superstition and confusion it is hard to know what is really required, but one business skill we can be sure will help is the ability to act tactically and strategically at the same time. By operating this way, businesses can exist both within and beyond COVID’s reach, and avoid the old pitfall of spending so much time thinking that no doing ever happens.
“The difference between a tactic and a strategy is like the difference between a tornado and climate change. One strikes quickly and the other builds over years, but both are powerful and equally capable of fucking up your farm.”
The difference between a tactic and a strategy is like the difference between a tornado and climate change. One strikes quickly and the other builds over years, but both are powerful and equally capable of fucking up your farm. In property today there is no choice but to operate on both of these time scales. This requires somehow balancing a demanding set of short-term concerns with the fact that our decisions have extremely long-term implications. We must be viable, keep growing and get going today while simultaneously considering the impact of a building that could last for 100 years and gainfully employ thousands through its lifespan.
Most decision makers in business today are at the older end of Gen X, Jonesers or Boomers and they are renowned strategic thinkers. Because they weren’t raised on the Internet, working tactically is harder for them and their exposure to moving quickly has been confined to the safety of design charettes or the occasional ‘big ideas’ presentation from the innovation team. The challenge COVID presents is therefore cultural, intellectual and structural all at the same time. This era of leaders will struggle placing their intuition – to watch and wait to be sure – within a shapeshifting marketplace where new habits, products and processes are forming every day. The risk is that this group do nothing and so everything collapses.
At the younger end of business decision-making things are moving faster, more freely and it might even be called fun. At the moment there is even greater permission for Silicon Valley tropes like ‘fail fast and break things’ but even that utopian attitude towards innovation has its limits, most notably cash which tends to run out when there are too many duds. All of a sudden the ‘permission to fail’ is revoked. Another limit is human energy – new ideas take a lot of it and if they aren’t paying dividends it gets harder to get up off the mat. So, while COVID has led to hyper-speed innovation and some good new ideas, it’s less clear to see whether these ‘pivots’ are creating a long-term future or just rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. The risk is that this group try to do everything and end up achieving nothing.
Perhaps the best way to think, decide and work at the moment doesn’t sit somewhere in between the instant thrill of a tactic and the slow-burning safety of a strategy – it encompasses both modes because you can’t really choose one or the other and expect to survive in the long-term. We have spent the last five years thinking of an agile business in spatial terms; one that lets its staff move around and sit anywhere. COVID is now changing what it means to be agile into something mental. Being an agile business means being able to think and act both tactically and strategically at the same time.
Barrie Barton is co-founder of Right Angle Studio. Since 2005 he has overseen the company’s strategy and insights, establishing it as one of the most influential agents of urban change in Australia and increasingly across the world, with Right Angle now also working in London and Johannesburg. Qualified as a lawyer but motivated by creating cities that improve the lives of their inhabitants, Barrie brings an humanistic understanding and casual style to property development.