Change and Organizational Adaptability: Three Challenges

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a board room sits empty as companies adapt to a new, post-COVID world.


Change is the only constant in business, but rarely is it so unexpected or overwhelming as it has been in 2020. From hospitality to energy, the coronavirus outbreak has upended a variety of sectors that, until recently, seemed poised for success in the new decade. Now, businesses are struggling to pick up the pieces while also charting a course for an unsure future.

Under ordinary circumstances, change management represents a challenging process. With COVID-19 factored in, however, organizational change takes on a new sense of urgency. Agility, while always critical in a modern workforce, is now more important than ever.

Businesses that manage to adapt swiftly and establish a new normal are more likely to succeed in this unprecedented environment. To do so, they will need to effectively address the following key challenges:

Lack of Humility at the Top

There is no playbook available to guide businesses through the current turmoil. The need for many perspectives, as well as extensive metrics to provide a more accurate impression of current economic concerns, is critical. Having leaders who listen and foster collaboration at the helm is more important than ever.

This unprecedented time calls for transformational leadership, in which management works with employees at all levels to enact necessary changes, rather than relying on a top-down approach to enforce the status quo. Humility has long represented one of the most underrated aspects of leadership, but in this new environment, humble leaders are more likely to ensure positive group dynamics and find the inspiration needed to move their companies forward. According to McKinsey & Company, humble leaders often demonstrate “deliberate calm,” which allows them to detach from the situation and think more clearly about how to best navigate it.

Lack of Purpose and Transparency in Business Communication

For employees facing uncertainty in their everyday lives as a result of the pandemic crisis, clear and regular communication is another critical focus for business leaders. The fundamentals of communication still apply, including

  • Defining both short-term and long-term goals
  • Listening and actively trying to understand other viewpoints
  • Opening the dialogue so communication is a two-way interaction

McKinsey adds a few additional points to this list, unique to the situation at hand:

  • Developing different forms of messaging to communicate with stakeholders who are trying to be safe, to cope and to find stability
  • Communicating simple messages with regularity, and repeating often, as the ability to absorb information may be limited right now
  • Prioritizing honesty, transparency and vulnerability
  • Focusing on the positive aspects of the crisis and encouraging relationship building within and among teams
  • Creating a clear vision for surviving the crisis and proactively describing what a post-COVID-19 world will look like for the company

In tandem with a clear vision, the World Economic Forum also highlights the value of purpose during this time: “We are building more adaptive teams, are more consistently in touch with each other and connection has become a priority in the name of working remotely. But beyond that we are connected with purpose and as a community.”

Lack of Stability and Resilience

Stability simultaneously represents one of the greatest struggles and necessities during periods of change. Already overwhelmed by significant lifestyle changes, employees and consumers require an even greater sense of security from organizations. This is best delivered via a stable and resilient company culture, which can keep businesses grounded even as they take on ambitious initiatives or weather crises.

A 2019 study published in Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research highlighted the unique interplay of stability and resilience even before the onset of the pandemic. Data gathered from 325 businesses revealed that the most successful organizations employed a blend of proactive and reactive components to form an agility-resilience construct. The higher agility-resilience organizations showed a higher return on investment and equity in the study. More stability, therefore, can help contribute to adaptability and company survival during times of extreme change.

The three factors associated with agility-resilience — stability, teamwork and “relentless course-correction” — can help organizations better address and weather unexpected challenges without sacrificing future initiatives.

Adaptability in a Post-COVID-19 World

Organizations that can overcome the above challenges and effectively adapt to change are those that can pivot quickly and effectively to meet customer needs.

Best Western Adapts

Best Western’s actions present one example of this adaptability in response to COVID-19. When the outbreak occurred, Best Western was able to shift its focus from travel to filling an immediate area of need: accommodations for medical personnel. This allowed hotels to remain open, thereby mitigating the devastation of mass layoffs.

As restrictions begin to ease, Best Western is maintaining its service-oriented approach while also addressing hygiene concerns. The company led the charge years ago with its I Care Clean program and is now ramping up efforts with a new approach known as We Care Clean. Though cleaning programs will likely lengthen the time it takes to clean each room in between stays, Best Western has committed to levelling up its actions to keep employees and customers safe. Best Western has:

  • Navigated COVID-19 with a pivot, allowing many employees to keep their jobs
  • Clearly communicated its mission around cleanliness and service changes
  • Demonstrated resilience and stability both within the organization and in service to customers

Best Western’s CEO recently noted that one of its hotels had already hit 100% occupancy on the day travel restrictions ended in one state. This is a signal that the company’s actions throughout the crisis have helped drive its post-crisis success. The ability to both pivot the organizational mission during a crisis and return to normal (with new changes in regulations in place) has helped Best Western navigate this difficult time effectively.

Organizational change is one area of learning for students pursuing a Master of Science in Applied Psychology. To learn more about the online applied psychology degree curriculum, visit the University of Southern California’s Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences online.