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Instead of looking for answers, perhaps we should be asking better questions

Updated: Jun 25, 2021

Since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of our collective consciousness this winter, the airwaves have been flooded with predictions about the ways the world will have to change. Then George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer re-kindled our ire and angst over racial inequities and systemic racism in this country. And in the background, the climate crisis continued inching along, incrementally and with little fanfare in the face of so much distraction.

There is no shortage of educators, economists and futurists out there trying to be the Cassandras of their industries, making fabulous predictions about what the future holds for us. And usually I’d be one of the first to go into know-it-all mode and make pedantic generalizations about what we “should” do or “must” do in the face of changing circumstances. (If there’s anything teaching in higher education has taught me, it’s how to be a know-it-all.)

But we’re not here for that.

The reality we’re all dealing with is that today’s unknowns are so unknowable that all we can do is make somewhat educated guesses about what the new normal will look like. And we keep talking about ‘the new normal’ as though we’re already there. The truth is that we do not know yet what normal will be and we likely won’t know it until we’re already there.

I’m asking instead that we take a moment to be exactly where we are. Sit with our collective uncertainty. Be content in this state of unknowing. That by naming and acknowledging it, we release ourselves from the obligation of having all the answers.

That said, some things are very clear. And what’s most clear is that everything will need to change. (Everything? Yes, everything.) And while this might be an unsettling thought, it’s also a hopeful one. Because when we acknowledge the need for change, we create an opportunity to better ourselves and our society.

So rather than making predictions about the future, I thought I’d share a few of the things that are helping me make sense of the present moment. I hope they help you too.

Pivoting in a pandemic

In a recent podcast on grief and finding meaning, noted psychologist David Kessler said that “the world we all knew is now gone forever,” eliciting an audible gasp from his host Brene Brown. And also from me.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that when necessary even behemoth organizations can flip their scripts on a dime. The old excuses about why we can’t react fast enough to the climate crisis no longer hold water. Auto manufacturers pivoted to produce PPE, advertisers cancelled campaigns and produced new ones, tech giants cancelled office culture. And innovators everywhere raced to develop the tools that would make our new socially distanced lives more productive and enjoyable. Now that we’ve shown what we’re capable of in a crisis, consumers are no longer going to accept our flimsy excuses for the reasons we can’t change.

If, like me, you’re also spending more time lately thinking about innovation, you might enjoy this talk from Ben Sauer, which challenges the emphasis on speed in innovation. According to his logic, this forced slow down may be creating just the conditions we needed to foster the innovations that will have the greatest positive benefits on society. Along those lines, architecture: savior of society?

The marketing landscape has changed as well, with many CMOs predicting permanent pivots in their marketing plans and practices. With economic contraction come austerity measures, with social distancing practices come new and different ways to connect meaningfully with consumers, with remote working come surprising boosts to collaboration and creativity. Adaptation is the new name of the game.

Creating a more inclusive and just world for everyone

There is nothing I can say as a cis-gender white woman that hasn’t already been said by black and brown and queer and transgender voices. So I’m just going to say this:

People, we are having a moment. And we are milking this moment for all that it’s worth to right the wrongs of the last 400 years. It sounds ambitious because it is. But it is also necessary.

Want to learn more about the history of racial inequality in the United States (or how we got here)? You might start with this compendium of every article about race ever published in the Atlantic. Or you might read this poem by Claudia Rankine about the moment that America is having. I’m rereading “The Case for Reparations” by Ta Nehisi Cotes, which uses personal narratives and well-researched data to chronicle the racism in the system that has led to many of the economic racial inequities we still see playing out today. To quote The Atlantic (actually to quote Alice Walker, being quoted by The Atlantic): “America is not nearly done. We’re only in the beginning. Who knows who we will be?”

In the meantime, companies like PepsiCo, Mars, B&G and ConAgra are finally retiring racist imagery from their packaging for brands like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben’s. I hope every company capitalizes on this shared moment of self-reflection to review their brands and operations and eliminate racist symbols and practices, just as much as I hope they will continue using their platforms to promote messages of equality and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

And also, can we say a collective yay for that landmark Supreme Court ruling? (And another collective yay for the Court’s decision defending DACA and Dreamers??) It’s a truly incredible step forward in the fight for LGBTQ equality (and immigrant rights) and a welcome bright spot in an otherwise grim news cycle.

Can companies save the world?

You don’t have to look far these days to find examples of companies that are using their voices (and dollars) to make positive contributions to society, whether that’s a message of empathy in an ad campaign or a big donation to support those economically impacted by stay at home orders.

And some companies are doing more than others according to this ranking of the top 25 corporate CEOs based on their response to the pandemic. No surprise to see my own favorite CEO Satya Nadella (and fellow Chicago GSB alum) in the top five as he’s made a name for himself by promoting empathy as the key ingredient to the turnaround he led at Microsoft.

And here’s another thing. Those companies that are demonstrating greater empathy by using their resources and influence to contribute to the social good are actually performing better too! This pause in our regularly scheduled programming has created an opportunity “to steer colleagues and associates from business panic to brand purpose.” As consumers look to companies to lead the response to the pandemic and COVID-19 increases consumer focus on ethical consumption, the imperative to put purpose before profits and Build Back Better has never been more clear.

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