In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, my favourite podcast did an episode with interviews with people around the world about the crisis. While the world was being paralyzed by lockdown restrictions, they produced a stellar story that brought people together.
Within days, schools and universities all over Europe moved all their education online, more than once at an exceptional level of quality. In the blink of an eye beer brewers, cosmetics companies and fashion labels began producing disinfectant, facemasks and other lifesavers. Some organizations and leaders transitioned into their new roles and responsibilities so fast that it felt like they had been preparing for this moment for ages.
Yet most of us, virtually all of us, were utterly unprepared for the COVID-19 crisis and its all-encompassing impact on our lives, our jobs and the world.
Over the past months, I’ve spoken to hundreds of professionals about how COVID-19 changed their life, individually and in sessions with Michael Peter Edson, Europeana and the We Are Museums network. The intent of these sessions is to help participants to make sense of what is happening — peer to peer coaching, so to speak. Yet they also raise and answer questions about our work and future. For instance, why some organizations and individuals responded so well to a situation we were all unprepared for.
Based on over 80 hours of (group) conversations, I distinguish at least three factors that allowed organizations and individuals to respond proactively and meaningfully to the COVID-19 pandemic: clarity of purpose within their context or community, a diverse and robust network, and the ability to create.
- Clarity of purpose within your context of community. Organizations and individuals that were quick to respond in a meaningful way had a clear view of all how they contribute to their networks, audiences, community, and others. Not just on the level of vision and mission, but especially the little things they do that matter. Such as the school buses that started bringing food to children that were locked down. Or the artists that turned to Instagram to take care of people’s children with enticing courses. The libraries that not just started book delivery services to their elderly patrons but also called them on the phone for a social conversation. And other organizations who found their main contribution to be in supporting others to do their job better, out of the public eye. Cultural organizations provide value in countless ways, and in a crisis, it may be the least expected that gives you new meaning.
- A diverse and robust network. Basically, these organizations have many friends in a wide range of other organizations who will work with them even if the world is turned upside down. Who can you call to set your idea to reality based on trust and generosity? Who will call you?
- The ability to create, thirdly, is about being able to use all the tools at your disposal and to manage your network to actually do things, make things happen. The first COVID-19 inspired event I spoke at was produced and had a large crowd of participants in under three weeks. Sometimes it takes that time to get a reply to an email. The ability to create breaks down in many different things, and it hasn’t been made easier when we had to start working remotely and learn new tools along the way. That said, every high-impact COVID-19 related initiative that exists has been created by people working under similar circumstances.
Other factors influence our ability to respond — financial stability, friendly relationship within teams, the national and local social and political situation, and more. Often these are outside of the immediate control of an organization or shared between them. Also, personal circumstances influence people’s capacity to act — e.g. when they have to balance responsibilities at home with professional tasks.
The good news is, all three factors can be strengthened in all organizations, and individuals can work on them as well. This will improve your resilience and ability to respond to the next crisis, which will come sooner than later.
Clarity can be improved by improving communication and the exchange of information and ideas within the organization and working with your network and community on understanding why you (can) matter to them. Networks are built and strengthened all the time. Simply pick up the phone and be generous, especially to people and organizations who are very much unlike you. The ability to create you can train for and improve by creating a culture of action and saying “yes” to ideas.
The same podcast from the first lines, in the week George Floyd was murdered, they didn’t publish a show they had planned and produced. Instead, they left a small note saying the moment wasn’t right. Too much was going on. This was a convincing response, also. If you know who you are in relationship to your community, have a diverse network and dare to do, even not doing can be meaningful.
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