By Jaap Boonstra & Francisco Loscos

Dynamic and uncertain times

We live in uncertain times and are dependent on each other. How can we deal with uncertainty and the changes that are coming our way? While our initial effort is to stay afloat while cutting costs, it makes sense to take a broad view and develop new initiatives for a secure future.

But how do you organise teamwork when your work is under pressure? How do you shape a future together? How do you strengthen a community's power to achieve sustainable change? How do you find the courage to do the right things? What is your role and contribution in the changes you envision?

Stabilise and innovate

Acting in crisis situations involves a double task: stabilising and reducing costs in the event of a sudden drop in turnover; and developing new practices. The first step is to bring peace and order to chaos by stabilising the situation and gaining time to break new ground.

The second step involves accepting the new reality and exploiting new possibilities through experimentation and innovation.

Stabilising and cost-consciousness Innovating with customer in mind
Work energetically Knowing what you stand for and go for
Reducing costs deliberately Focus on customer needs
Improve financial position Actions towards the customer
Reducing in product assortment Deepening in existing market
Working from strength Focus on successful products
Realizable plans Keep innovating

Companies are better prepared for a crisis if they have a good financial position. Some firms have few financial reserves, such as companies that have just started, or the self-employed (who are the first to be left out when a company reduces costs).

Family businesses often have more cash because they can rely on family capital and forego dividend payments.

Companies are better prepared for a crisis if they have a good financial position

Large companies can survive for a while unless sales drop by 80 percent and most of the capital is tied up in machinery (such as airlines). Small and medium-sized businesses, such as many companies in retail, hospitality, or contact professionals such as hairdressers and physiotherapists, tend to have less capital, and if their entire revenue stops while costs continue, they quickly run into problems.

It is good that the government is helping here, otherwise we will see empty shopping streets after this crisis because many retailers will have gone bankrupt.

Good customer contact is essential if you want to be oriented towards customers and markets. If you know your customers and your customers know you, then you can approach them and deepen your existing market with new products and services.

For example, some restaurants offer meals via the email addresses of their customers and deliver to their homes. Other restaurants are switching to takeaway using the reputation they already have. Hairdressers offer mixed hair dye and care products, and through FaceTime offer help to people cutting their hair at home.

Responding to unexpected events and seeking interaction helps to stabilise and innovate

Some production companies are seeking collaboration with knowledge institutions and are switching to producing protective products and respirators. In healthcare, we can see a powerful interplay to expand the capacity of intensive care, so that hospitals can meet the demand.

Responding to unexpected events and seeking interaction helps to stabilise and innovate.

Can we play together?

In the examples above, companies are responding flexible and playful to new situations. This brings us to the question of what play means and how a perspective of collaborative play may help us in adapting to uncertainty.

It is difficult to define play because a definition destroys playfulness. This is already a characteristic of playing: the moment you try to capture it with formal rules, the play disappears. It is therefore better to start asking ourselves a question: think about playing, what comes to mind?

The table below provides the answers to the above question from 700 people who followed a course at Esade on dynamics in transformational change.

Fun Playing together Freedom Innovation Energy
Pleasure 120 Togetherness 93 Freedom 56 Creativity 46 Energy 14
Joy 42 Trust 43 Open space 18 Experimenting 23 Excitement 9
Fun 20 Connecting 12 Voluntary 9 Practicing 21 Challenging 9
Happiness 14 Seducing 9 Carefree 7 Discovering 10 Movement 8
Spontaneity 6 Relaxing 8 Open-minded 5 Improvising 6 Dynamic 5
Laughing 5 Intense 4 Imagination 3 Curiosity 5 Competition 4

It is remarkable that pleasure is by far the most mentioned, with interaction as a close second. When you see children playing you see spontaneous behaviour. There is a lot of laughter, no matter how serious the play is played. Playing offers freedom and room for creativity. In that space we can try new things and learn from them. The play is challenging and energising.

Play has a number of characteristics about which play theorists reasonably agree.

  • Play is fun, it has no immediate use, except that you can have fun with it.
  • Play is voluntary, once it becomes mandatory it is no longer play.
  • Play is freedom and we keep playing as long as we enjoy it.
  • Play is relaxing and can make you laugh.
  • Togetherness is created in play.
  • Play is not "normal" life, but it does offer the opportunity to escape it.
  • Play is spontaneous and intrinsically motivated.

There are rules that arise in play and these can be changed after consultation. We often play a role, which gives freedom to do something different. Play seems unimportant, but it has importance for players involved. It is not reality, but it feels real.

Playing offers space to try new behaviour and develop different ideas

Finally, play proceeds in within its own proper boundaries of time and space. Play can start suddenly and can be repeated with the same or different people. Play is a generator of novelty.

Imagine that we can see changing organisations as a play in which we experience freedom and have fun. Playing offers space to try new behaviour and develop different ideas. This frees us from ingrained patterns and can contribute to profound changes in organisations and the world around us.

Dynamic environment

In an uncertain and dynamic world, change is not only about acting and stabilising effectively but also about experimenting and learning. Trying something out creates insights into what is possible. In the model by Snowden and Boone below, several worlds are distinguished that are not mutually exclusive. The model offers guidelines for dealing with crises.

Change uncertainty Covid-19

In a stable world, working with protocols helps us cope with uncertainty. We can now see this in the use of protective equipment. Because of protocols, we don't have to reinvent the wheel every time, and we can protect others and ourselves. An example of the complex world is the upscaling of the number of beds in intensive care and the distribution of patients who need this care among hospitals and regions. Scenario planning and central control help to increase capacity.

The dynamic world is recognisable in the actions of many companies who have switched to a new economic reality

The dynamic world is recognisable in the actions of many companies who have switched to a new economic reality, or schools and universities that switch to online education within a week. The government operates in a dynamic and unpredictable environment. It gives meaning to what is going on, works with experts, and tries to stabilise the situation.

Participants in an Esade course were asked which world they currently experience most. It should come as no surprise that the dynamic world was mentioned most often, followed by the complex world, and then the chaotic world. Almost nobody mentioned the stable and predictable world.

This means that most people look for opportunities to respond to the complex and dynamic situation we are in now. The sector of an organisation matters. In the pharmaceutical industry, product security is essential for the development of tests and vaccines, while healthcare, education, and small and medium-sized enterprises benefit from experimentation, learning and joint action.

In uncertain situations it is necessary to play every field at once. After all, it is about dealing with chaos by stabilising, and at the same time, looking for new ways to deal with complexity and dynamism.

Shared play ambition

A clear play ambition in an organisation helps find safety and guidance in uncertainty. In play, four perspectives come together: meaning and purpose, shared values, unique strength and strategic positioning. The play ambition is related to the identity of the organisation.

Change Covid-19 Esade

In a crisis situation it is necessary to know what you stand for and go for in order not to lose your identity and be able to work from strength. The play ambition offers a dynamic perspective because it is about the tension and congruence between the four aspects. Play helps us find a direction for innovation in the uncertainty and chaos we experience.

Innovation and interplay

In times of crisis, people know how to adapt quickly, and innovative ideas arise. This is in line with the previous thoughts about play. Playfulness gives room to develop and apply new ideas. A playful attitude helps people adapt to rapidly changing circumstances by finding creative solutions.

Playful behaviour can generate radically new ideas and these ideas can lead to new forms of behaviour with which we approach the world. In this context, the cultural model of competing values developed by Cameron and Quinn is interesting.

Change values

Most organisations have a dominant culture that is typified by one of four fields:

  1. Hierarchy and control
  2. Family and togetherness
  3. Innovation and agility
  4. Market and competition

At the same time, all four cultural characteristics are simultaneously recognisable in an organisation and compete with each other.

Many people experience the culture of their organisation as hierarchical or familial, and therefore, as internally oriented. Far fewer view the culture as innovative or market oriented. This outcome is conceivable if people in organisations are surviving. The outcome is problematic when it comes to improvisation, innovation, agility and market-oriented acting.

Many people experience the culture of their organisation as hierarchical

Rules in organisations are indispensable for delivering quality and maintaining stability. If existing rules and ingrained play patterns lead to stagnation, it is necessary to question and change the rules. Togetherness and support for each other are important if you experience uncertainty in your daily work, but it is problematic if it confirms existing relationships, and makes innovation difficult. Changing play patterns is necessary to respond to unexpected events and make room for innovation.

Several organisations are able to respond quickly to a new situation of uncertainty. This indicates innovation and raises the question as to why other organisations are lagging behind. One reason for this may be that hierarchy, processes and procedures are dominant elements of the existing culture, along with a family culture that does not tolerate much deviation from the norm. The culture is then mainly internally oriented and when it is really necessary will there be room for innovation.

Play concepts and change strategies

There is no best way to change organisations. Six change strategies are shown below.

Change strategies

When it comes to stabilising and cost-conscious action, you expect management to take the lead and work purposefully. A rational strategy is helpful and negotiating everyone's contribution to cost cutting is relevant. But when it comes to customer-oriented acting and innovation, the motivation, learning and dialogue strategy are more obvious.

In uncertain situations that involve stabilisation and innovation, it is ultimately a balanced combination of change strategies that fit together and match the situation in which an organisation finds itself. This raises the question of whether any organisation can tackle change by playing. We think so – if the will is there and there are players who take the initiative. Change as a collaborative play means that players deal with unknown events and create opportunities to respond to the unexpected.

Surface level and undercurrent

When changing organisations, we can look at the surface level of visible activities and at the undercurrent of experiences. From a change perspective, the surface level is in line with views on change as a rational and systematic process. Only paying attention to the surface level means ignoring the tensions and emotions in the undercurrent of change.

Most people do not embrace change only on the basis of a rational conviction

Most people do not embrace change only on the basis of a rational conviction. For engagement it is needed that they feel emotionally addressed and experience space to participate. The undercurrent is about uncertainties, daring to let go, looking for support, nurturing hope, developing new ideas and realising innovations to deal with the unexpected. Especially in uncertain periods, attention to the undercurrent is essential.

Ambition chart

Upstream activities fuel feelings in the downstream. Organisational change based on a powerful and rational approach leads to feelings of loss and uncertainty, while an approach based on motivation and learning is more likely to contribute to hope and initiative.

Conversely, experiences in the undercurrent can also feed the upstream. If you start from the experiences and ambitions of employees, you create a broad coalition and a shared vision in which communication is two-sided.

Let's play together

Change as collaborative play is characterised by cooperation between players in which people can take on varying roles and competition moves into the background. Everyone can take the initiative in a change or renewal.

This ties in with the role of leadership in uncertain situations. In our view, anyone can take the lead when it comes to change, you don't need to have a formal leadership position. In your own sphere of influence, you can start small initiatives, ask others to participate and experiment together with innovation.

Anyone can take the lead when it comes to change

Formal leaders play a leading role in giving meaning to the uncertain situation in which we find ourselves and giving direction in the dynamics we experience. Managers have a role in stabilising and reducing costs. At the same time, it is essential that leaders create space for innovation, and invite people to take initiative. In our view, initiators are also leaders in the sense that they take the lead, involve others and break new ground.

Change as play often starts with curiosity about what will happen. There is uneasiness and excitement about the possibilities that play offers and the space that is created for new ideas and perspectives.

In play itself, people enjoy the movement that arises. Experiences from play contribute to knowledge, insight and skills. Shared experiences provide insight into the working methods and culture that we have created together. This provides insight into the way we can realise changes together.

Change as play offers a valuable perspective for organisational change if the environment is uncertain and dynamic. It is about powerful teamwork by players who put their shoulders to the wheel together, use opportunities and achieve sustainable change.

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.