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Before the end of 2020, my business associate Marshall and I got together to do a podcast on what we had learned over the highly irregular year. Rather than dwell on the negative aspects — there were certainly many of those — we chose to focus on the positive things we heard from clients as they navigated the ever-shifting currents of COVID-19.
As a part of the distributor groups we facilitate, Marshall usually starts the meeting by asking participants to share a word that describes their work environment. This is very analogous to a therapist asking how a patient shows up for a session — not that I would know anything about that. These one-word answers will often set the tone for the meeting and give everyone a chance to have their thoughts heard.
As you can well imagine, the word “change” was often uttered throughout these sessions. What was intriguing was not that the word came up, but rather the context around it.
Before I get into the meat of this column, I did want to share some of the other words we encountered. Resilience was a common theme. As I have shared many times in the past, distributors are a resilient lot. We rise to the occasion and find ourselves to be street fighters rather than precision strategists.
To no one’s surprise, adaptability was another common thread. When faced with a brick wall, we look to the left, the right, under and over. Sometimes, we even punch a hole right through the center.
“Creativity” was another word of 2020. In my 30 years of working in distribution, I would have to say that our industry created solutions at an astonishing rate. Prior to the pandemic, had we ever heard of “contact-free delivery” or “curbside pickup”? Certainly not from wholesale distributors.
Many of us heard the word “allocation” when trying to fill the shelves. Now, this may not have been a new word, but it’s something many of our team members have not encountered in their relatively short careers.
We also heard the word “connection.” Isolation and physical barriers made us realize how important interaction, both personal and professional, really is. Even if we don’t understand it, peer collaboration is more than a want — it is a need.
But the most interesting for me was that word “change.”
Be Open to Change
We have all been excited at some point in our careers to implement some new process, program or even product in our business, only to have a contingency of employees fight this change tooth and nail. No matter what golden justification we shared, this group dug in their heels and slowed our path to progress like a 500-pound anchor. In some cases, we found ourselves so frustrated that we simply gave up and returned to the status quo. We lived to fight another day.
Why are some folks so resistant to progress? Perhaps they don’t see it as such. Progress may mean additional effort in instability. It may require further education or skill sets. It may require financial investment at a point where future income is uncertain. Perhaps there are generational conflicts and a simple dislike of those trying to implement change. There is a fear of the unknown and their ability to measure up. These are all valid reasons.
But then, 2020 came roaring in with a global pandemic, and we experienced an unlikely byproduct — forced change.
Change was all around us. No longer could we conduct business, or life, in the same way. For business travelers like me, our flight plans were grounded. We couldn’t grab lunch at our favorite restaurants or slide in for that caffeinated reprieve when the day wasn’t going as expected.
Rituals changed. Recreation changed. Holidays changed. It was, and sometimes still is, uncomfortable. But we changed as well. We became more accepting of protocols and found different ways to interact. Our needs were met, even if our wants were not. Change just became part of our normal existence.
The impact of these forced changes has given us a window of opportunity — if we choose to recognize it as such. Our most staunch resisters to change in our organizations were not immune to the upheaval of 2020. They were forced to adapt in their daily lives; many realized that they were no worse for wear. They were able to adjust and their world didn’t collapse. This forced change in their personal life created an opening in their professional life.
Many of our participants shared that they witnessed a diminished resistance to change in co-workers. That resistance is the biggest barrier to progress. Wearing masks and ordering take-out had brought about something that no amount of coaxing, persuading or threatening has been able to accomplish before — the door to progress opened a crack. It is up to the leadership to jump on this phenomenon.
Are there back-burner projects just waiting to see the light of day? Have you been putting off e-commerce, barcodes in the warehouse, digitizing your AR process or a whole host of high-efficiency enhancements? We may have just reached the tiny window of smooth implementation. OK, that may be a stretch. How about a window of implementation with less hair loss and Maalox consumption?
I challenge you to look around your organization. Identify those who have been most resistant to new ideas. Has their behavior changed? Are they more or less resistant to change? Small procedural improvements may be nothing to bat an eyelash at. Seize this window because you never know when it may just slam shut. Good luck; I look forward to your ideas becoming a reality.