All in the mind? Shifting from a narrow focus on crises to a broader VUCA perspective
Executive Education / 9 May 2023
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Head of Transformation Management
Dr. Kim Dillenberger ist derzeit als Head of Transformation Management beim Centre for Performance Management & Controlling an der Frankfurt School tätig. Vor ihrer aktuellen Position war sie als Manager bei Fresenius Kabi tätig, einem führenden Hersteller von intravenösen Arzneimitteln und Infusionslösungen. Davor war sie als Doctoral Researcher am Strascheg Institute for Innovation, Transformation and Entrepreneurship tätig.

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Have we now reached permanent crisis mode? So it would seem, because overcoming the – in some cases existential – challenges companies have been facing in recent years is now just part of our day-to-day business. You navigate successfully through the turbulent waters of one crisis only to find yourself plunging into the next, with very little time left to adjust back to normality.

When the Covid-19 crisis first started three years ago, we started talking about the “new normal”. What we meant was that the pressure of the new challenges was causing long-term changes in our established routines. But by implication, we also meant that crises are finite, and normality would eventually return. Was that a fallacy? The truth is, companies activated “crisis mode” and many of them have not yet come out of it. They’re constantly devising emergency solutions, setting up crisis task forces, revising their many plans and adapting them to the latest circumstances.

But this does raise a question, namely: what happens to these emergency solutions? If we look back, it becomes clear that many of these solutions “make it” into what we’re calling the “new normal”, while others don’t. But this is precisely the point at which many companies squander real potential for development. Because in crisis mode, the overriding goal is to surmount the crisis – rather than evolve out of it.

Consequently, the solutions and new working methods that emerge in crisis mode are rarely subject to the kind of systematic analysis required to identify their evolutionary value to the organisation. This exposes companies to two major risks:

  • That good solutions don’t “make it” – they aren’t developed any further and disappear almost unnoticed, even though they would be a good fit for the company.
  • That poor solutions do “make it”, persisting even though they’re not a good fit for the company.

An invitation to shift mindsets

To not just overcome a crisis but – more positively – evolve out of it, we must fundamentally rethink the way we deal with crises. So I invite you to engage in a “mindshift” – shifting your mindset from focusing narrowly on crises to taking a broad, VUCA-based perspective. What do I mean by this?

  • Nowadays, crises are an integral part of the business world.
  • So we can no longer expect to surmount a crisis and then simply return to our “normal” working day – because coping with crises is now inseparable from our normal working day.
  • Consequently, we don’t just need the familiar “crisis mode”; we really need a new, dynamic working mode.
  • This would allow us to take our eyes off individual crises and take a broader view of the (newly) emergent routines in the company, with the aim of seeing the bigger picture.
  • We can then evaluate the various lessons to be drawn from each dynamic phase of this emergent evolution and incorporate them into the organisation’s flexible, ongoing development.
  • This would transform the struggle against a temporary dynamic (surmounting a crisis and then returning to “normality”) into a new ability to deal with ongoing dynamics (continuous evolution in dynamic conditions as the new normal).
  • On the one hand, this new “dynamic development” skillset would make companies crisis-resilient; on the other, it would enable them to remodel themselves based on a VUCA perspective.
  • Ultimately, this would transform crises into development opportunities for the company, which can be leveraged by taking the broader VUCA-oriented view.

Transformation management in practice

By shifting our mindset in this way, we can rethink all the issues associated with crises by repositioning them in a larger context. But however plausible the considerations discussed above may be, there’s still the question of how relevant this mindshift already is to corporate practice. To answer it, the Centre for Performance Management & Controlling commissioned a study that aims to develop a concrete understanding of how transformations are currently managed in companies, and what challenges companies must face in the process. The study is being conducted as a joint project with Struktur Management Partner (SMP) GmbH. We have analysed the responses to our survey, held subsequent expert interviews, and are just about to publish our findings.

How to identify crises at an early stage and successfully steer companies through them is something we teach on Frankfurt School’s “Restructuring & Turnaround Management” certification course. The course provides participants with the strategic, operational, administrative and legal knowledge and tools they need. Acquiring a dynamic development skillset adds an additional, cultural dimension. This skillset is, after all, directly relevant to commercial success, because the bottom line is that:

You can only go forward, you can’t go back – the “old” normal is past and done, the “new” normal is continually emergent. What we need today is the broad, VUCA perspective that sees each crisis as an opportunity to evolve.