The end of business as usual

Roughly every decade, someone announces the end of business as usual. But somehow, business always continues, and with some changes, finds a new normal.

On October 25, 1987, the New York Times proclaimed the end of business as usual. It was the first Sunday after Black Monday, which saw the largest percentage drop of stock prices in history. The paper quoted Jay Schmiedeskamp, then director of economic surveys at Gallup:

This introduces uncertainty, and uncertainty is the enemy of business as usual.

In hindsight, of course, the stock market crash was only temporary. Shortly after the hiccup, business as usual resumed. Little more than a decade after Black Monday, the Cluetrain Manifesto in 1999/2000 again declared the end of business as usual. In the age of the internet, the authors asserted, markets are getting smarter, leaving companies behind and rendering classical marketing techniques obsolete. In hindsight, this was a prophetic book, though not in every detail.

And then once more in 2011, Brian Solis touted the end of business as usual when he published his book of the same title. At that time, he took the social media revolution into account, which had just started a few years previously. The digital consumer had revolutionised marketing, and power had shifted away from the companies of the Industrial Age towards the consumer.

The end of business as usual is a recurring theme, and has been for decades. The current global crisis will probably spur another round of such proclamations. But somehow, business always continues and, with some changes, finds a new normal.

How long the current crisis will keep us busy

Over this Easter holidays, I started to think about how long the current crisis will likely keep us busy. Judging from past events that I have witnessed in my lifetime, it will probably be longer than many people seem to think right now. For example, the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 and the German unification in 1990 took about 18 months to unfold and then kept us engaged for years. The aftermath is still felt today. For example, we still pay a solidarity surtax that was first introduced to cover the tremendous costs of German unity.

The 9/11 attacks in 2001 set off a period of “global war on terrorism,” which extended well into the Obama presidency (2008-2016) and beyond, only to be superseded by a larger crisis right now. The financial crisis of 2008/2009 led to the Great Recession and to a series of crises, like the Greek debt crisis and the European debt crisis, that in turn contributed to the refugee crisis and to Brexit (2016/2020). Nothing of this is really fixed yet. Not to mention the climate crisis that will remain on the agenda for decades.

The 2009 swine flu pandemic lasted for 20 months, infecting around 700 million to 1.4 billion people and resulting in about 284,000 fatalities. However, confirmed cases (1,632,710) and deaths (18,449) were both significantly lower than the current numbers. And we're only five months into it. The IMF now predicts the worst recession since the Great Depression in the 1930s. Which lasted for a decade, shrunk the US industrial production by 46 per cent and ended its recovery only with World War II.

Business as usual is over

I've been on the internet since at least 1994. More than a quarter of a century later, we still haven't seen the full impact of the digital revolution. The current situation gives us only a glimpse into what's possible and perhaps even desirable. It accelerates trends that have been around for years, changes behaviour at scale and spurs investments in all kinds of digital experiences. The stock market currently shows a twofold picture: tech indices like Nasdaq 100 or MSCI World IT fared quite well, while their more traditional counterparts like S&P 500 or Dax 30 were hit hard.

It is safe to assume that business as usual is over, at least for the foreseeable future – which itself is not very long. We now need to think in scenarios and prepare for different possible outcomes. It's time for a reboot. The grade of digital maturity suddenly decides the fate of many, if not most, businesses. The less companies depend on physical presence, the better off they will be during the current crisis and possibly even beyond. Anything that can be done virtually will be. But not everything.

The end of business as usual is the end of control. We've lost control, and now we face the question whether to accept this loss or to struggle for its recovery. What can we achieve under conditions of lost control? How much control do we really need to thrive? Are the costs of control prohibitively high? We need to deal with radical uncertainty. This has been looming for a while. In 1987, the year of Black Monday, the term VUCA was coined. The US Army started to think and teach about the strategic implications of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, and from there, this kind of thinking spread to the business world.

What if the new normal is that there is no normality?

After 9/11, VUCA was widely adopted to describe the new normal, which increasingly looked like normality itself was lost. There had been a similar discussion in the scientific world about post-normal science since the 1990s. Back then, Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz proposed a framework for solving problems where

facts [are] uncertain, values in dispute, stakes high and decisions urgent.

What if the new normal is that there is no normality? In 2009, under the fresh expression of the financial crisis, Ziauddin Sardar developed this thought in a paper for Futures magazine:

Welcome to postnormal times. It’s a time when little out there can be trusted or gives us confidence. The espiritu del tiempo, the spirit of our age, is characterised by uncertainty, rapid change, realignment of power, upheaval and chaotic behaviour. We live in an in-between period where old orthodoxies are dying, new ones have yet to be born, and very few things seem to make sense. Ours is a transitional age, a time without the confidence that we can return to any past we have known and with no confidence in any path to a desirable, attainable or sustainable future.

It is a time when all choices seem perilous, likely to lead to ruin, if not entirely over the edge of the abyss. In our time it is possible to dream all dreams of visionary futures but almost impossible to believe we have the capability or commitment to make any of them a reality. We live in a state of flux beset by indecision: what is for the best, which is worse? We are disempowered by the risks, cowed into timidity by fear of the choices we might be inclined or persuaded to contemplate.

Complexity, chaos and contradictions

A decade later, his diagnosis still sounds timely. It is the VUCA world, expressed in slightly different words. Sardar refers to three c’s – complexity, chaos and contradictions – as the root forces of postnormal times.

The combination of ignorance and uncertainty, as well as a tendency to chaotic behaviour, contradictory analysis and the complex issues of safety and risks—all this means that our current options for ‘business as usual’ are now dangerously obsolete. In postnormal times, conventional modes of thinking and behaving are nothing more than an invitation to impending catastrophe. Some of the notions that underpin western, capitalist society, such as, ‘progress is essential’, ‘modernisation is good’, and ‘efficiencies are necessary’, are well passed their ‘sell by’ date.

Hence the mid-life crisis of capitalism? We’ve seen that technological progress, measured by productivity growth, has slowed down. Modernity is constantly debated and may well be over. Efficiency has lost its mojo. Societies are divided, populism and tribalism are rising. Globalisation is put to a stress test. But despite all the turmoil, our systems continue to work. As crisis after crisis rises and passes, business as usual continues.

A fast cycle of crises

In the decade after the financial crisis of 2007/2008 and the Great Recession, we’ve seen a fast cycle of crises. We’ve seen Brexit, the rise of Trump, Bolsonaro and other authoritarian figures, or the gilets jaunes. In one way or the other, these crises and events have been interconnected. But none of them disrupted our world.

Obviously, our systems are more resilient than we think. Resilience is a communicative process. It is talking new normalcies into being. Some people even tout resilience as the new sustainability. It definitely is the counterpiece of disruption. But that’s not to say it will work in each and every case. There is no guarantee, nor will there ever be.

Sustainability remains a challenge, as well as resilience.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash