To most people, BCP plans are about as interesting as aviation security announcements. To the average employee compliance trainings are probably as fun as airport security checks. Having downside protection in relation to an abstract scenario leaves a majority of people unbothered, simply because it’s easier and more intuitive for many of us today to imagine tomorrow instead of an unlikely situation in an uncertain future.
So, as the world got punched in the face by COVID-19, existing contingency plans didn’t really work great, probably because nobody thought it was purposeful or fun creating them in the first place. Generally speaking, we are bad at things we hardly care about. That also includes following rules we don’t understand or perceive as useful.
What resulted was a situation in which we needed to improvise, devising effective solutions fast. Gradually, governments and the private sector got up to speed. Now we have a plan and a common enemy, we still lack a consolidating purpose. We must realise enforcing new rules and compliance measures won’t alone make people care about playing their part. Rules are rarely designed to be human centred, which is a problem if the intention is for people to follow them.
Following rules for fear of consequences is an extrinsic, highly reactive behaviour: We do it because we have to, often with a minimum effort approach. Beyond it what we really need is everyone to care about doing the right thing and that means moving beyond rules alone and focusing on the purpose in doing so. A rule is the equivalent of telling someone: Actually, we don’t trust you to do what is right, therefore we shall force you to do it. Rules are a necessary fallback when reason doesn’t do the job, but they can’t and shouldn’t replace efforts to make people believe in behaving rightly. The way to reduce cigarette consumption isn’t taxation or education alone, it’s in swaying public opinion and social rituals around it such that they are less supportive of smoking behaviour. For that to happen, social dynamics need to compel people to consider such a shift worthwhile.
Bottom line: We must stop thinking rules will fix everything all by themselves. Mobilising as many as we can to champion the right behaviour should be an absolute priority.
Exactly the same applies in organisational transformation and personal growth. We must seek consensus on the WHY behind the change before we reach for the whip. As a famous saying goes, ‘if you want to build a ship, don’t drum up men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, instil a yearning in them for the vast and endless sea.’ If we leave it at telling people what to do, it automatically makes them feel they’re not in charge, which is dangerous especially in times like these. We need each and every contribution to solving the Coronavirus problem. Now we have urgency and rules to follow, let’s address the glaringly obvious missing element that would connect humanity in this global fight: A powerful narrative uniting us with purpose. That will change everything and leave behind a better post-crisis world. It’s a great opportunity for global society to grow back together on common terms.
It’s time to empower people everywhere to feel they’re part of the solution, not the problem. A wise person once said, ‘the difference between heaven and hell is doing things willingly.’ That means finding purpose in what we’re going through today is going to make us more effective and happier in our efforts to recover from this global crisis as best as we can. It will hopefully leave us with a better humanity and might even inspire us to more decisive action in relation to climate change and other pressing global issues. I’d say it’s well worth it.
(By the way, that ship quote is by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, also know as the author of The Little Prince. We can learn a lot from that chap.)