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We Are The Martian

By Bryan Croeni and Jill Jago. Published on May 15, 2020.

What Matt Damon can teach us about planning for an uncertain future.

Few would disagree that today’s global landscape is very different. On the surface it looks very much the same as it did last December, but all our assumptions and patterns of behavior have been forever disrupted.

As we were discussing how to help organizations and businesses change and adapt to the new challenges before us, we found ourselves revisiting Matt Damon’s character in the film adaptation of Andy Weir’s The Martian.  Abandoned on an unwelcoming planet, he was forced to invent a strategy for survival with rescue no more than a remote possibility. From a certain perspective, finding ourselves on Mars would present a clearer context for problem-solving. He had to invent everything he needed using the only resources available - what he’d brought with him and what Mars had to offer. It’s trickier here on Earth. Everything looks familiar, but the economy, business and life as we know them have been profoundly disrupted. Our solutions worked for us in the past, and we have a strong emotional attachment to the pre-COVID life we knew. On Mars we would understand that we couldn’t expect to replicate what we had on Earth, but on Earth it’s very hard to grasp that what will serve us best on our newly transformed planet is not what we had before. Can we escape the mindset that created our current circumstances?

Ten years ago, effective organizational change management was thought to require an exercise in evangelism. If people understood the intent of the change, the drivers, and the intended outcomes, they would follow. This view of change depended on moving people along an incremental path through an evolving, but familiar, external environment: what we know but a bit different.

Incremental change is no longer possible. The Earth shifted beneath our feet.  We have to take stock of our new surroundings and adapt.

What would The Martian do?

While many “best practices,” such as the incremental organizational change model, are no longer relevant, there are others that can guide us. Explorers and innovators have, over millennia, perfected a less cautious, but highly effective, method of problem solving. Their “Keep/Toss/Invent” construct provides a tried and true framework as we contemplate our next steps into the only-partially-known.

KEEP – what we hold dear

Organizations have a DNA – a purpose, an origin and a culture rooted in shared beliefs and values. Often, over time and through responses to challenges and opportunities, we lose touch with our beginnings. The Gestalt theory of change instructs that the more you try to become something you’re not, the more you’ll stay right where you are.  It applies to organizations as well as people: paradoxically, the change we seek occurs when we become more who we are, not by trying to become who we are not. Adapting to change does not require us to reinvent our purpose, culture and values, but rather to dig deep into what we hold dear and identify the problem our passion and beliefs is uniquely suited to solve.

TOSS – what no longer serves us

Over time, organizations develop habits - set ways of thinking and established ways of acting. It’s abundantly clear that these habitual responses that served us in the past will not deliver the outcomes we need to succeed now. The current pandemic is merely accelerating the inevitable – change that we vaguely acknowledged “would happen eventually,” in fact happened overnight. Change is always stressful, dramatic change even more so, and - under stress - we tend to revert to the comfort of practices that have proven successful in the past. In these conditions that's a risky strategy more likely to exacerbate the problem or leave us behind. Now is the time to determine which enshrined practices no longer serve us and embrace new ones.

CREATE – Invent what we need to succeed

Our new world requires new thinking and new action from us. First, we need to take stock - to look at what we really have, not what we wish were there. Then we can identify what’s missing, not on the surface, but hidden from view. Those opportunities and challenges that, if we seize them and solve them, can create robust, sustainable business models and better outcomes for human and planetary health. The pandemic is an opportunity to reset and to arrive, like The Martian, with only ourselves and those things that have proven valuable and durable over time. Then, with an open mind, we can identify the new learning, resources and technologies we need to create to thrive on our new planet. The hardest thing to do is to leave behind the relics of the old world that cue familiar - and unhelpful - responses. Summoning our curiosity, and a little humility, will serve us well.

B+H Advance Strategy is founded on the belief that the future is whispering to us if we only take the time to pause and listen. We cannot predict the future but we can pay attention to emerging technologies, trends and business models and connect the dots to make a smart bet on the role we want to play in the future that emerges. Through observation and inquiry we can identify patterns and create potential scenarios. We then test these concepts through exploration - prototyping, evaluating and iterating until we refine a path that will allow us to confidently walk forward on the Terra Incognita of our new Earth.