The New Normal


We are entering the fourth week of this startling, confusing, confounding economic pause. It seems like a lifetime.

Government-mandated cessation of economic activity in the face of a worldwide viral pandemic is a first in human history. The economy didn’t gradually go sour due to an imbalance between supply and demand as has happened many times before. We know how to deal with those market vagaries. Academics (I among them) have written countless books on managing a business during boom and bust times. However, in reaction to this deadly pandemic, most of the world abruptly hung out a “Closed for Business” sign and headed home. No economist, philosopher, historian, politician or business manager has ever seen such a thing. “Closed for business” seems to be effective for managing the health crisis, but no one knows what a mandated immediate cessation of commerce means to the world and US “economies”.

So, I will skip the often-repeated discussion about overhead in hopes that I have said an adequate amount on that subject for a while, and that circumstances and necessity will force decisions soon enough. Rather, I would like to stare into the face of the unknown with you and try to help fashion a rational response to these unfamiliar dangers. I invite you to follow along with my attempt to refashion our thought processes to bring them into compliance with this sudden “new normal”.

Rational Thinking

Our natural “problem solving” minds resist a static state. When presented with life’s constant kaleidoscope of problems, people immediately and automatically begin to fashion a response. We gather information from past experience stored in the cavities of our brains, select and sort these experiences and, through a lightning-fast analysis, apply this information to the new problem. This evolutionary mental skill has served mankind well. In fact, it is how the human species has gained “mastery” over its environment. We learn to rely on and believe in the efficacy of, rational thinking.

When Things Aren’t Rational

But what if there is no experience, no experiential data stored in the brain that replicates the present problem? What if we never saw anything like this before? How will the “normal” problem-solving process respond? Here’s what usually happens. It goes through a fear response that leads to mistakes and become irrational.

  1. FEAR – When danger suddenly appears our adrenalin kicks in and demands a response (impulse to flee). If, however, it does not recognize the danger, it has no experiential map to follow, to fashion an escape.
  2. DENIAL – “Problem-solving” minds immediately begin to apply any familiar template at hand to this unfamiliar danger. This is a form of denial that increases fear and results in aggression.
  3. ANGER – Quickly realizing that the familiar template will not solve this unfamiliar problem, most people immediately look for someone to blame. (They get angry.)
  4. AGGRESSION – The defensive impulse becomes aggressive and acts against the entity chosen to blame. The aggression causes action against the imagined enemy, not the real one. This action never solves the problem. Time is wasted. Mistakes are made. Matters get worse.

“Just the Facts, Ma’am. Just the Facts” (Sergeant Joe Friday)

Almost four weeks into this crisis, with the business environment crumbling around us, let’s make sure we are not wasting time worrying about horror stories or figuratively whistling past the graveyard which often ends up with “Wait and See.” Instead, let’s focus on what is–rather than what might be.

Worrying is fearOptimism is denial. Neither will work and both will lead to mistakes.

I hope we can agree that in these unusual times, we can only deal with the problem that is right in front of us, our company. If your business has already shrunk 10%, make 10% adjustments. If 20% of your business has suddenly evaporated, take appropriate and proportional action. Avoid agonizing about what might happen tomorrow. There is no one to blame and don’t bother dabbling in medical science. Don’t put too much faith in “commentators and pundits” guessing and making up stories to meet deadlines. Deal with the facts that are available, one day at a time. This simple discipline can help get us through.

Note: Information on overhead management can be found on this site. Click on “Manual” at the top of the opening page and go to Managing Overhead in the table of contents.