Pandemic — and reopening — surprises

Rita McGrath
7 min readJun 28, 2022

When an inflection point comes to a head, human beings are remarkably ingenious in adapting to its requirements. It may not be fun, but we figure it out. But when the changes wrought by the inflection point settle in for good, a lot of re-learning and adjustment needs to happen.

When the world as we knew it ended

I’ve never seen anything that touched all of humanity at much the same time the way the COVID 19 pandemic did. And what was quite amazing was by and large how well organizations adapted. There were definitely hiccups in the planning, and as my colleague Bent Flyvbjerg would say, we could have done a far better job with fast mitigation, rather than the half measures that allowed the virus to take hold. But from a business point of view, it was pretty impressive.

At Columbia Executive Education, for instance, we looked at an entire semester of programming that had to be cancelled, with unknown prospects for what would come next. But we rallied, introduced a live online format and re-imagined what our world would be like in that setup. And it worked! In some cases, the online version was richer and better for networking than the in-person ones were.

For me personally (and many of my colleagues, such as members of the Silicon Guild) the speaking business fell off a cliff. The first period was kind of frantic — with everyone in lockdown, there was a big spate of virtual events, many of them free. And then eventually, the conference business shifted and sort of normalized. We all got ring lights, microphones and better cameras. We invested in backgrounds, real and virtual. We figured out every hosting platform out there. We learned to screen-share. And the business came back in a kind of cool new way. Where every speech or talk before involved some kind of travel, now I could visit Africa in the morning, Europe at mid-day and Asia in the evening — all in one day.

A surprise: Just how much overhead it takes to do business in person

Rita McGrath

Columbia Business School Professor. Thinkers50 top 10 & #1 in strategy. Bestselling author of The End of Competitive Advantage & Seeing Around Corners.