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BY AARON SHERINIANDONNICA HAWES-SAUNDERS

One of the more potent dichotomies of the pandemic era is the understanding that we are both intricately connected as well as on our own. In the face of evolving data and unclear direction, we’ve spent much of the last 18 months relying on instincts—some already well-honed and others we didn’t know we even had.

It is important to acknowledge: this is OK. We are all making it up as we go to some degree. We are all feeling some version of this—in our home, in our community, and in our workplace.

In times such as these, we can find comfort and purpose in the familiar. For many, this means reliance on ritual—whether we call it that or not. Often, though, when people think of ritual, they think of rigidity. Ritual can be something that is done by rote, in many cases without thinking. But here is where opportunity lies, personally and professionally.

Great art instructors will tell you that the most impactful pieces—from painting to poetry, symphonies to cinema—happen when someone both embraces and subverts accepted forms. The real magic happens when an artist—or, for our purposes, an executive—is open to finding the intersection between the two. It is the union of what works with what is possible.

The current chaotic environment—maybe more than ever in our lifetimes—gives us license to truly explore what is possible in our companies. Not just the products we deliver, but how we work, how we sell our brand, and how we take responsibility for our impact in the world.

Civil society is clamoring for more than episodic engagement from companies. Brand loyalty goes beyond a favorite taste or a reliable tool. People are committed to their routines—including how they spend their money—but they want the companies that are a part of it to show imagination, authenticity, and commitment in managing their impact on the world.

Gone are the days when any brand or organization could rest on its reputational laurels. Trust and relevance are constantly being refreshed if they are to remain central to a person’s life.

What does this mean in practice?

Cosmetic change isn’t sufficient. We must address structural challenges that evince a real “not about us without us” mentality and be honest and intentional about the systems that inhibit true equity.

Regarding office hours—that familiar 9 to 5 (to 6, to 7, to 8) slog, the answer is likely somewhere between more remote work and less face time. We know the traditional ways of doing business; the ritual of check-ins, and meetings, and conferences, and global interactions. But are we willing to subvert that paradigm to find a new, 21st century resonance that results in better ROI as well as greater employee satisfaction?

How does our work impact the holistic health of the communities in which we work and where are clients live? Do we invest in an office building or a warehouse somewhere, give money to local schools and art programs, and then do what we want? Or, should we be building true community partnerships that not only benefit those tangential to the company, but also strengthen bottom lines by incorporating a wider swath of ideas about how to do business, and who to do business with?

It is important also to recognize that local Institutions and trusted individuals are even more valuable in an era when everything is huge. We have to find the sweet spot between global scale and human scale. That is the launching ground for innovation as well as customer satisfaction.

You know the phrase “this is how I roll”? It’s another way of saying, “this is what has worked for me, and I’m going to keep on doing it.” Certainly, it’s good to have pride, but when does it become defensive? When is the way we’ve always done business become a hindrance?

For better or for worse, in many instances the tires have come off how we roll. We can call it just a pit stop and use the old familiar routines to get back in the race. Or, maybe we can take the time to envision not just how to make the car run better, but how to make the machine fly.

It will take more people—and more kinds of people—at the table. It will take a willingness to do two seemingly incompatible things at once—run the business as efficiently as possible while trying and measuring radical new things. And, it will take a more expansive view beyond KPI’s of what we are trying to accomplish as a brand or organization.

It is good to have our favorite rituals; they ground us and fortify us. But neither human beings nor businesses can truly thrive forever on just the familiar. The landscape is littered with brands and organizations that couldn’t adapt. As we venture into this post-pandemic world together, let’s incorporate into the next normal an openness to recognizing the moment we are in and a willingness to meet it with fresh perspective. This is where the real potential lives.

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