Recent world events suggest that a new way of thinking about organizational surprise may help contextualize its effects. For example, the global COVID-19 pandemic surprised and stressed many organizations, whose various responses merit analysis and categorization.
Surprises, or unexpected, astonishing changes to the status quo, can knock organizations aback and such events are on the rise. Leaders and managers can’t afford to neglect them. Surprises come in many forms, including creeping developments, sudden events, or loss of meaning events. Organizations wrestle with surprise and its effects through sensemaking, crisis management, or dedicating resources to avoid surprises altogether. Some scholars note its role in driving organizational change and its importance to learning.
Recent world events suggest that a new way of thinking about organizational surprise may help contextualize its effects. For example, the global COVID-19 pandemic surprised and stressed many organizations, whose various responses merit analysis and categorization. We therefore developed a new typology to help leaders and managers better understand the effects of surprise, to allow them to use it to drive organizational change. We posit that organizations will react to surprises in four ways, and type them accordingly, depending on their responses. These types are: Survivor Seekers, Sleek Organizations, Dinosaurs, or Pinnacle Organizations. Categorization rests on these organizations’ fundamental beliefs about people’s behavior after a surprise, and how much the organizations may change their actions to adapt to a post-surprise environment.
Following a brief description of our typology method, we will elaborate on the types of actions and characteristics expected of these four types of organizations. Finally, we will describe how each type of organization may respond to the surprise of COVID-19, specifically, and discuss some implications of the choices that leaders of each type of organization make. In a follow-on article, we will apply this framework to the Department of Defense.
Back to Normal: The first two organization types believe life will return to a largely pre-surprise state. That is, that people’s actions and attitudes will return to “the way it was” before the surprising change to the status quo. Organizations with this assumption expect no real change to people’s behavior based on the surprise event. Two types of organizations hold this belief about the temporary nature of the surprise: survival seekers and sleek organizations. We differentiate them respectively by whether or not respond with a high or low level of action.
Survival Seekers have one goal: survive the shock. They hunker down and weather the storm. Their plan is to hold on until life returns to normal and then resume activities with no real changes to how they operate. They do not take advantage of, or even recognize, any efficiencies engineered to survive a surprise. They thus exhibit a low level of response to surprise.
Sleek Organizations share the goal of surviving the shock, but recognize the efficiencies gained in response to it as advantages. They learn from their reactions and change their behaviors accordingly. These organizations exhibit a high level of response to surprise. Their changes in organizational behavior may give them a competitive edge moving forward.
Life is Forever Changed: Some organizations believe that surprises and shocks fundamentally change peoples’ behaviors. From this perspective, shocks to the environment alter how people view and interact with the world. People want and expect a new and better way of doing things. Again, two types of organizations hold this belief, and they are differentiated by whether or not they take a high level of action or a low level of action in response to surprise. We call the first type of organization dinosaurs and the second pinnacle organizations.
Dinosaurs recognize the change in the environment but either have a fundamental belief that their organizations were good before the surprise and will be good after it, or else they lack the resources (will, money, vision, etc.) required to change their organizations. These conditions result in little to no drastic change in such organizations.
Pinnacle organizations see the world has changed and not only act to permanently incorporate efficiencies they gained during a surprise, but also seek new value streams and advantages throughout the aftershocks.
One can argue whether a global pandemic should surprise us; we argue that 2020’s COVID-19 definitely did: it significantly changed most organizations’ operating environments. And though people knew a global pandemic was possible or even likely, no one expected it to happen when it did. Here are some ways the four types of organizations might respond to this global crisis – and others to come:
As with most typologies, we recognize that it is likely that organizations may fall more onto more of a sliding scale than into an absolute category when it comes to how their organization will manifest, post-pandemic.
Survival seekers will push to get back to a pre-COVID-19 business model as soon as possible. They will bring their workers back to the office/factory with little to no changes to the office layout, telework options, or staggered start times. They will not poll employees about teleworking preferences or analyze cost savings pocketed during COVID-19 operations. In short, they will miss opportunities for efficiency and change because they do not believe that the COVID-19 experience changed people’s behaviors or expectations.
Sleek organizations may change internally as they analyze cost savings gleaned from unused parking, travel funds, real estate, water, fuel, or electricity. They’ll do no external evaluation of customer requirements since they believe the world did not fundamentally change. They will have exploited temporary efficiencies, such as Zoom meetings, but will forgo greater opportunities for change by not incorporating new and proven cost-saving practices.
Dinosaur organizations recognize peoples’ behavior has fundamentally shifted in the post-COVID-19 era, but their unshakable belief in the soundness of their organization’s pre-COVID business model inclines them to believe it will remain sound after the crisis. Such organizations include manufacturers and some service industries, such as garbage collection or delivery services. They believe their organizations are already optimally organized to provide certain goods or services to customers.
Pinnacle organizations take great steps to position themselves for a new normal. They believe that the world has fundamentally changed, and that people no longer want or accept life as it was before a crisis such as COVID-19. They recognize that some people can be as efficient working from home and in the office and that costs — either way — are forever changed. These organizations plan strategically to meet their customers/stakeholders’ needs, and they align their organizations with the future they expect to see. One way such organizations evaluate their processes is to look for efficiencies and areas for innovation using Michael Porter’s value chain concept.
The value chain breaks down organizations’ strategically relevant areas into either support areas (such as infrastructure, human resource management, technology development, or procurement) and primary activities, such as inbound logistics, operations, outbound logistics, marketing and sales, and after-sales services), to find areas where these organizations can beat their competitors. Value chain analyses are not new, however, pinnacle organizations look at their value chain and ask themselves, ‘if people’s behavior has fundamentally changed, what are the implications for each segment of our chain? They believe that in a fundamentally changed, post-crisis world, such analyses will drive their organizations to choose new paths toward operating success.
While the jury is still out on what the future holds and how COVID-19 may have changed people’s behaviors, organizations must start thinking about how they will position themselves for the post-pandemic operating environment. Private individuals are already thinking about life past COVID-19. As with most typologies, we recognize that it is likely that organizations may fall more onto more of a sliding scale than into an absolute category when it comes to how their organization will manifest, post-pandemic. We also recognize that different parts of organizations may fall into different categories. For instance, a soft drink manufacturer’s human resources section might exhibit pinnacle type features, while its manufacturing division might still resemble a dinosaur type.
The important question is for leaders and managers to ask themselves, ‘what type of organization are we, and if this is not the best type of organization for our industry in the post-crisis world, what do we need to do to change?’ If they don’t ask, they may find themselves surprised by extinction.
COL Jeffrey E. Baker is an Army Officer and instructor in the Department of Command, Leadership, and Management at the U.S. Army War College.
Bob Bradford is a retired U.S. Army colonel and the Professor of Defense and Joint Processes in the U.S. Army War College’s Department of Command, Leadership, and Management.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
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