Is Change the Only Constant?
“Thought Leadership” by Tom Henkey, CEM
Director of Emergency Management
Given what has taken place between March 2020 and March 2022, you may be forgiven if you can’t quite recall what “normal” was like.
After all, the past two years have seen a massive international disruption in the form of a viral pandemic, driving a global economic recession. We’ve had widespread civil unrest and mass demonstrations, extreme weather patterns, plus unprecedented political violence in our nation’s capital. And now we have the largest conflict in Europe since World War II (on top of simmering civil wars in Syria, Yemen, and Ethiopia).
“The only thing constant is change” is a maxim for a reason. After an extended period of relative stability, we seem to be living in very unsettled times. And there appear to be no immediate solutions to these widespread foreign and domestic crises.
There are many, many different lenses through which to examine these challenges. Political. Public health. Financial. International relations. Cultural. Societal. And this would merely scratch the surface.
Yet from a strategic organizational perspective there is one striking commonality: the status quo is not a fixed point. In other words, change has been the one constant over the past 24 months. The organizations and entities which have adapted and evolved during this period have been those which enjoyed relative success. Organizations which were overly rigid in their perceptions or actions have been those which suffered the most.
If we are to truly take the long view, the most valuable lesson from these volatile times may be the importance of understanding that status quo is not the norm. In other words, we cannot presume that the most critical factors in our operation are fixed and unchanging. On the contrary, we should be looking at how large-scale disruptions in one part of our operations may impact the whole. Preparedness and flexibility are emerging as invaluable traits.
The recent Russian aggression in Ukraine is a prime example. The two nations had been involved in a significant border dispute since Russia seized and annexed the Crimean peninsula in 2014, and started a proxy war leveraging Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens in the eastern portion of the country. The situation was deeply disruptive locally and cost thousands of human lives, but its significant impacts did not extend beyond the immediate region.
That all changed in the last week of February when Russian artillery shells screamed across the border into Ukraine, followed by columns of tanks and armored personnel carriers. A regional conflict very suddenly became the world’s problem. Locally, the status quo did not hold.
Germany openly provided lethal aid and weapons systems to Ukraine, its first such international shipment in at least three decades. Finland and Sweden are now publically considering joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to bolster their defenses against Russian aggression. More than one million refugees streamed out of war-torn Ukraine into neighboring states in just one week of conflict. Regionally, the status quo did not hold.
Sanctions and massive financial penalties were quickly leveled against Russia, from across the political and geographic spectrum. Alliances which stood unchallenged for decades suddenly shifted as the clear and obvious aggressor faced pariah status at the United Nations. In an already unsettled global market, oil and grain prices skyrocketed as two key producers and distributors actively fired shells at one another. Internationally, the status quo did not hold.
The real lesson for organizations large and small is that a distant conflict can have massive impacts on local, regional, and international levels. This interconnectedness is what makes global political and economic systems resilient and functional (most of the time). It also means that any organization that failed to prepare for an alternate shipping route, alternate grain supply, or a spike in fuel costs was going to be in for a true and lasting shock.
We don’t yet know if we have truly turned a corner on the COVID pandemic. We can’t be sure that we have seen the worst of the civil unrest or political violence here in the U.S. We cannot be positive about how the outcome of the invasion of Ukraine will affect long-term commodity prices and availability.
But we can be assured that change is a constant. And we can be certain that organizations truly preparing for shocks and disruptions will fare better in the long term.