As I work with senior leaders and their teams these days, a question often emerges in the room: What is new normal?  Leaders have seen customers hit the “re-set” button and they wonder when – and if – things will get back to the “good old days.”

Some of this wondering may be our natural forgetfulness.  As John Steinbeck says in East of Eden, in the good times people forget how difficult the bad times can be – and in the bad times, people forget how good it can be.  But in most parts of our society, people sense that there are fundamental changes afoot.  The chess board is not just bumped.  It has been dumped.

Chess Board

I was lucky enough to sit in on a talk by Gary Hamel, one of the most published strategy thinkers, a few weeks ago.  One of the memorable quotes from that talk goes like this:

You’re either going forward or going backward. There is no in between.

And yet it strikes me that our searching for “new normal” can lead us to do the exact wrong thing: hunker down and wait. Part of this instinct may be useful.  Too many of us run around like headless chickens when things get turbulent.  But if Hamel is right (and I think he is), simply assuming crash position indefinitely will probably send us backward.

Instead, here are a few questions I’m asking clients these days – and pondering myself:

  • Every era has a “normal” – the opportunities and constraints that define the age.  What might they be for us over the coming five years?
  • Every era has outliers who find and exploit the secrets to success in that era.  How do outliers discover and exploit those secrets? How well are we doing that in our company?
  • Every era has turning points that create opportunities? What turning points are we experiencing? What opportunities does the dumped-out chessboard create?  What established competitors are in turmoil? What new customer base is opening up?

What do you think?  What leadership group in your organization needs to talk about these questions? Your answers may make the difference between going forward or going backward.