For Companies and their leaders to Thrive in a Fluid World, They Should Act Like Children

By Jamie Read

A little before COVID-19 struck, my wife and I decided to spend three months travelling roughshod through Thailand, Vietnam and South Korea with our two small children. Many of our friends and family thought we were nuts. Children need structure, they’re fragile, they need constant hand-holding and attention, they’re selfish, overly sensitive and are known to throw tantrums at the worst possible times. ‘Good luck!’ They said seriously and sarcastically.

But I’ve always believed that it is actually us adults who crave structure and that children are great at seeing rainbows in spite of the rain. We hold legacy ideals and impose them on children. Kids, however, are spongy, malleable, adaptable to their situation. Like water, they fill the shape of their container and when encouraged, very often overflow it.

While recently browsing through our photos from that trip, I couldn’t help but think about the current situation with COVID-19, the new realities of our lives and how businesses must behave to survive and thrive in a world that seemingly changes daily. The shifting climate. Globalization. Pandemics. The acceleration of technologies designed to replace us. It used to be that we travelled the world to submerge ourselves in change. Now the change comes to us.

And so businesses and the leaders of those businesses should take this opportunity to relax some of the structure and rigidity that they have become comfortable with. This new world is more fluid and less predictable but it is not soft. Like a river that carves through rock, now is not the time to be rigid. In a fluid world, businesses need to be fluid also, to go with the flow. And maybe to do that, we should remember when the world was new, magical and every experience was a chance to learn, react, grow. Maybe to be fluid is to be child-like. Here’s a few thoughts on how:

Focus on what really matters

Try holding a kid’s attention for any amount of time. It’s hard. Children know how to focus on what’s important to themselves. They have a singular goal to squeeze every ounce of fun out of their day and little patience for anything else. This a good lesson for companies pivoting into the new realities of the economy. Company’s like Walmart are increasingly turning to AI to automate parts of their processes, like negotiating with their vendors, so that they can optimize and focus on their core business. Fluid companies will increasingly outsource iterative and transactional components of their business to algorithms and specialists so they can focus on what’s important to their success.

Be curious

Kids are curious. And curiosity is an imperative for businesses and leaders in a fluid world. Organizations of all sizes and from all industries need to adopt lean mindsets, trial new software, pilot new projects and reward out-of-box thinking, not as fringe projects but as a strategic pillar designed to breed a culture of curiosity across the organization. Research from Harvard Business Review shows that curiosity is vital to company performance. Leaders need to be accessible and encourage employees to ask questions, not just of themselves, but of their industry and of other industries in other countries. In a dynamic world, there’s lots to learn, and companies that make learning part of their culture will be successful.

Be open-minded

Children recognize skin-colour, accents and religious dress. They don’t judge. But they do ask questions and try to understand the context. It’s ironic that Artificial Intelligence and marketing theorists are doubling down on developing contextual models, yet we humans more and more are trapped in our own personal echo chambers that blind us to other viewpoints. Companies must force themselves to have rich and diverse perspectives, and leverage context as a lens through which to view the world, themselves and their customers. This will open up new ideas and revenue streams. It will help build resiliency when there are major shifts in the market. As Deepak Chopra said, “See the world as if for the first time; see it through the eyes of a child, and you will suddenly find that you are free.


Children see magic. It’s a shame that society discourages this trait in adulthood but it is only through our sense of wonder that we’ve landed on the moon, cured diseases, built amazing structures and enjoyed relative peace and prosperity. In a world with unimaginably big challenges, a sense of wonder can be transformational, steering businesses to something bigger than purpose. We need to give ourselves the time to be creative, to imagine the possibilities and innovate towards a better future. Companies and leaders that do this will build trust and loyalty in their brand while inspiring their employees and customers.

Be observant

Ever notice how even the most confident kids, when first entering a new setting, become shy, quietly taking stock of the environment and the people, soaking it in? Only once they’ve assessed the situation and terms of engagement do they jump in feet first. Fashion-tech startup Choosy leads by listening and then doing. The disruptive upstart is leveraging technology to monitor, assess and react to real-time trends from their own audience, then creates limited runs of items, which are then snatched up by their community with zero overstock ending up in landfills. Businesses have been taught to believe that thought leadership means taking strong positions and then adding their point of view to the overwhelming noise. In a world that always changes, leadership will now come from being quiet, listening, assessing and picking moments of clarity and opportunity to act.

Be tender

Kids love unconditionally. They cry when you cry. They laugh when you laugh. There are deep biological reasons for this related to the brain’s development and the concept of ‘mirroring’, which many believe is directly associated with empathy. It’s also the reason why engaging friends through Zoom and other video conferencing solutions doesn’t leave people feeling fulfilled. And while many companies have demonstrated empathy during the current pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests, it will be an essential component of organizational culture, communications and even product development from here on in.

Have fun

Fred Rogers said that, “play is really the work of childhood.” But in a world where employment is becoming fluid, play will become the work of adults too. If there’s one thing I’ve taken away from being at home with my family during the pandemic, it’s that work isn’t everything. Having time to reflect on our priorities in life, the post-Covid-19 economy is going to be less focused on driving financial gain for faceless investors and more about driving value for society, for employees, for everyone’s well-being. To bridge this change and ensure employees are still engaged in their work, companies that embrace play will be more successful. Play helps with understanding others and helps to form stronger relationships. In fact, research shows that play also helps people be more innovative, which in a fluid world, is essential.

“May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke

As the world and the economy pivot to new ways of living and working, perhaps children provide us with the blueprint for successfully managing and adapting to change, and to do so with imagination, open minds and a sense of wonder. Companies and leaders that reflect these traits will find they are better able to adapt, grow and lead in a time when people crave true leadership.

Sufficed to say, on that three-month trip, the kids did amazing. They ate strange foods, climbed to the tops of mountains and the depths of caves, played with stray cats and chickens, rode in tuk tuks, on motorcycles, on bamboo rafts and on my shoulders. They made new friends and new memories, gained knowledge and perspective. They went with the flow.

Whether as businesses or individuals, to succeed in a world where the only certainty is uncertainty, we should all be so fluid.

(Editors note: this article is about being childlike and is not giving permission to be childish, as demonstrated by certain global political and business leaders. Tantrums, selfishness and bullying are always inexcusable and in my household result in the revoking of privileges.)


Managing change in times of corona

By Moritz Kaffsack

‘Be water my friend’ said Bruce Lee. These words could not ring more true in the chaotic and confusing times businesses are facing. In the midst of the disruption the corona pandemic is creating, how can leaders prepare for an unknown future with so many blind spots in their internal and external environment? When even expert predictions have a very short shelf-life, there is very little understanding of what will change in the short-term and which of these changes are here to stay.

Humans are hardwired to hate uncertainty and perceive change as a loss of control, often resisting it at all costs. Structuring a change plan in this environment is hard; communicating it and bringing all customers, employees, suppliers along may seem an impossible task.

In less volatile times Larry Hirschhorn wrote an article in the Harvard Business Review titled ‘Campaigning for Change,’ wherein he outlined three campaigns of change management: a political campaign (creating allies and a coalition), a marketing campaign (effectively communicating the benefits) and a military campaign (overcoming resistance). This is a brilliant starting point for a change campaign in normal times.

But how do you build alliances, convince your audiences and overcome resistance to change, when you have no clear view of what the future will look like and are struggling to articulate a structured roadmap for your business? When forced to take it step by step, shifting gears and planning actions in constantly changing circumstances? What experiences can we look to for guidance, clues and actionable insights?

Let’s examine how businesses operate in environments so fluid that they’re required to be in constant change mode.

This is the case for businesses operating in emerging Asian markets in the past decades. Multi-year plans are practically obsolete within a few quarters when the economy is growing at 7–10%, when talent shortage drives employee turnover industry-wide to 50%, when big projects can be secured overnight or lost overnight. Planning far ahead isn’t just impossible, it creates a competitive disadvantage. In an environment this fluid, market leadership can change constantly. This offers up big opportunities for businesses but taking advantage of them requires agility and quick thinking and action, insights and instinct, and most of all strong leadership.

Developing a new product with a start-up is an equally fluid experience. To build a winning product, start-ups run on the principles of speed and agility. Products are developed based on hypotheses, but what the product will look like a year from today is not defined. Development takes place in an iterative process, testing assumptions, getting quick feedback and adapting features. This way of working permeates the entire organization. As a result, job descriptions are fluid and talent is applied where needed with a focus on pushing fast progression.

These two experiences are vastly different from each other. What’s striking is what businesses have in common that succeed in them: their primary goal is not to create stability. Instead, their plan is to thrive in a volatile and unpredictable environment by becoming more fluid themselves.

The leaders and organizations I’ve seen thrive in these environments, employed some or all of the following principles to manage maximum change:

1. Manage by principles, not by rules. Rules will change. The principles need to stay the same. Usually, that’s straightforward: you care about your people and you need to run a successful business. Stick to those and explain your decisions in the current context.

2. You may not have a roadmap — you must have a vision. That’s nothing new of course, and it can be very high-level, but it’s what your teams will stick to and be motivated by: to make that vision happen against all odds in an uncertain environment.

3. Surround yourself with a fluid skill set and switch quickly. Different talent will be required for different phases. So focus less on roles and titles, more on talent and capability. Repurpose smart people quickly as a phase winds down and another starts.

4. Don’t waste time on long-term planning. Have a clear vision, yes, understand how it informs company priorities, yes. But develop only short, quarterly plans how to get there. Be ready to adjust quickly, pivot, and guide your teams in a new direction.

5. Communicate all the time. Organizations shy away from doing this in times of change, because they don’t want to be held accountable to things they said that may change later. Don’t let that stop you. We’ve talked endlessly about humanizing business: now live it. Start every communication with ‘the situation is very fluid and we won’t be able to predict what happens next. But here’s our principle. And here’s what we’re doing today and why. We’re on it and will keep updating you’.

6. Co-create everything. Bring people in and show you trust them. Shoulder uncertainty together. That applies not only to employees and colleagues, even partner and customers can handle openness, honesty and the desire to collaborate and find solutions together. This creates buy-in and makes the actions taken ‘our actions’ rather than unilateral initiatives. Not to underestimate the power of offering to be their ally, being ‘in it together’ in times of disruption.

7. Don’t punish failure, address inaction instead. As the strategy adapts, teams need to move with it, overcoming siloes, hierarchies and most of all inertia. To move beyond the fear of action, encourage quick decisions and model results-orientation.

Companies employing these principles aren’t just responding to change but thriving in it. When we apply this fluid approach to managing change in the current setting, the marketing, political and military campaigns are not obsolete, they’re still as relevant as always. With one difference: they don’t run as structured campaigns. Instead, leadership teams draw upon them in a modular fashion.

Instead of marketing a change theme, market your principles. Communicate your take on the ever-shifting context and the resulting decisions. Instead of identifying selected political allies to take your company through the change, cast a wider net to co-create and shape the path forward together with a larger number of employees and even external partners and customers. Instead of using a military approach to fight resistance to change itself, give more leeway, allow for pushback and opposing opinions. Bring those along who fight but also act to get the business to a better place, remove those who hesitate to act until they see a clear plan and a structured roadmap to get there.

Using these principles can get a business closer to being able to move, pivot, change gears quickly while bringing all those important along. This will at first feel unusual, seem unstructured and not planned enough for a big corporation. And that’s normal. The current crisis has accelerated the process of the collapse of traditional structures, forcing companies to deal with the fluidity heretofore not experienced by the larger business world. It’s time to look beyond the boundaries of our past experiences, in search for new solutions and a fluid approach to change.


Brand fluidity in times of Corona: What comes after the fight or flight-response?

By Lisa Collin and Cornelia Kunze

When in immediate danger, the amygdala sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, an unconscious chain reaction starts, and the chemical messengers in our brain create cortisol. This leads to suppression of the immune system and a boost of energy, preparing for fight or flight.  Once the threat passes, our cortisol levels go down – and the conscious parts of our brain take over again. Relief!

At this time in our lives the threat has not passed and we’re all unsure about how long we will go through distress, hardship, uncertainty.

The Corona crisis seems to trigger the same kind of almost chemical reaction in businesses or brands. After a first startle reflex and a moment of immobility and disbelief, organizations are becoming hyper-active, fueled by corporate adrenaline, focusing on cash protection first: state subsidies, longer payment periods, third-party contract termination, suspending rent payments, reduced working hours and salaries and putting a freeze to brand activities. Others also rush to empathize and to signal as loudly as possible just how much they care, without fully considering how to make this care tangible, useful or effective.

The responses during and after the immediate reaction can be largely divided into fight or flight.

Those who fight,

  • sustain their operations, keep their employees safe and use all their power and resources to mitigate the effects of the crisis for us all.
  • re-purpose their factories and produce face masks and gloves instead of luxury fashion, hand sanitizer instead of body cream, or find themselves under presidential pressure to produce ventilators instead of cars.
  • stand on the side of their employees, customers and suppliers, put action before words, stay human, do what they can, provide relief for their own stakeholders and beyond.
  • And communicate thoughtfully; joining the dots between their stakeholders and the real needs of the audiences they are striving to support.

Those who take flight,

  • let worst-case scenarios rule over their headcount decisions, bonus agreements, supplier contracts, rent obligations and customer relationships.
  • look for legal loopholes, seize the cost-cutting and state subsidy opportunity, even if they don`t have to  and serve shareholders first
  • disappear from their channels, as they believe they have nothing to do or say now
  • or worse – take advantage of the crisis to re-surface as the winner or hero

We know that crisis brings out the best and the worst in both, people and brands. #BoykottBrandX will scare brand leaders now, and some may think that consumer memories are short-term, and budgets are best used when life picks up again.

Maybe – but maybe not.

There is reason to urge brands to stay in touch closely, behave consistently and prove their relevance more than any time before.  To do so, they must recognize that life has become, and will remain, more fluid. Corona has supercharged the forces on business and brands that were already there and set a new paradigm for future operations.

Listening and adapting day by day is paramount.  A singular message, broadcast once, will not suffice.

This phenomenon of fluidity will be the new normal for all of us, as we will have learned dramatic change the hard way, accepted uncertainty because we had to and often found some joy in our new lives.

As consumers, employees, entrepreneurs, we are building muscles and resilience. We are inventive and less needy, perhaps rediscovering a resourcefulness we’d suppressed. And we are instinctively sorting out abusive or one-sided relationships with people, employers, agencies or brands. The crisis is a catalyst to many things.

For example, to e-commerce, as it was proven with SARS in Asia. Or for better personal hygiene. We all will feel uncomfortable singing happy birthday only once, when washing hands. Or video-conferencing: Why get up at 4 am in the morning to fly from London to Berlin for a meeting, if I can meet people on Zoom? Or going back to office on a full-time basis after so many weeks of freedom. Or the retainer contract with the agency.  Maybe home-schooling is the exception. Some parents among us might thank or bribe schools and teachers for taking their kids back and ensure they are happy and educated.

We see four trends, which are not necessarily new, but which will impact brands even more than before the crisis.  

  • Every product or service will have a digital alternative tomorrow – except for toilet-paper may be. You can be replaced by those digital siblings immediately. People don`t need you. They might discover that they need your whole category less after the crisis. Been with grey hair for 6 weeks? Maybe stick to it. Not travelled the world for the last months? Maybe enjoy home. Learnt to sew and cook? May be reduce fashion and restaurants altogether. Of course, even if they don`t need you, they might still want you but these discreet shifts in behavior represent an opportunity to improve the value exchange with your audience.
  • Nothing will ever stay a secret. Really. You charge a usurious price for your product, you tolerate shabby behavior of your organization during the Corona crisis? Trust is fragile and Google`s memory is unforgiving. Platforms, apps, social media empower everybody to create movements with the like-minded. They will hype or ditch your brand and organization, as they please. Not fair? Well, this has become a game at eye level and your behavior during and post Corona is being watched.
  • Everything is connected to everything. We might have heard before that Orangutans die, because we shower or eat ice-cream. That children stay un-educated, because we buy cotton t-shirts. That cars are made of 20.000 different parts from thousands of suppliers across the whole world. But now we also know that the actions of others in another part of the world can fundamentally change our society and daily experience; and that we need to keep the big picture in mind always. Brands are held responsible for issues, no matter how complex the supply-chain, no matter how water-proof their contracts and codes of conduct.
  • There is a higher meaning in life but efficacy matters.  Do what you do well.  Be the best at it.  But once the basics are covered, people not only want to know what a brand stands for but what a brand stands up for. Brand purpose has too many times proven to be a shallow promise, a mere communications exercise. All of us have been disappointed too often, a trust bonus would be naive. If the only reason to exist for a product is profit, people will behave as transactional with you as you do with them. There are many alternative brands, who do contribute their expertise and money to a higher meaning and a better world.

If our environment is ever changing- fluid – there is an imperative for brands to adapt. Not to simply respond to the forces exerted upon them but to echo or resist, as makes sense for them.  They can apply fluidity too, once the fight-or-flight-response is over.

At this moment, as businesses large and small tackle the many immediate challenges that each day presents, the notion of ’what is next’ may feel too removed or too difficult to consider.  But beyond just keeping things moving, there is an imperative to consider how we not only get back to normal but strive to get back to better. This is a good time to re-vive and re-vise a brand; to assess the rational and emotional value we contribute and develop brand ideas fit for future based on fluidity. The current situation is good for some ‘zero-base’ exercise: What is the true anchor of our brand, which has brought us to where we are today? What are the actions which will make the life of our stakeholders better? And how will we build and nourish our key connections with customers, suppliers, talent and the society at large, so that we together can add value.  Perhaps whether a brand chooses to proactively plan for a different future or not is the true test of flight or flight.


How fast can we go? Post-corona agility is a test for us all

By Catherine Ogilvie

“In the new world, it’s not the big fish that eat the small fish, it’s the fast fish that eat the slow fish” Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman, Davos Economic Forum

The convergence of business, society and culture is changing the way we live, work, and coexist; the acceleration of new technologies and a relentless speed of progress and global challenges impacts the lives of everyone on the planet. Covid-19 is creating monumental challenges which need global response and collaboration from governments, business, academia and society to fight the devastation created by the pandemic. Business leaders face multiple challenges both inside and outside their organizations. Massive disruption in manufacturing, supply chains and revenue; impact on staff; reputation, brand positioning, customer engagement and delivering results amidst a changing global environment.

Globalization is an escalating factor that cannot be ignored. Remember the Greta Thunberg effect and how quickly pressure built for companies to have a voice or a view on environmental issues?  There is no brand that can ignore this issue, or they do so at their peril. The Coronavirus crisis has left few countries or economies unscathed and governments are realizing that only by sharing science, resources and skills will recovery be possible. 

Technology continues to exponentially accelerate change as new developments in data analytics, and marketing stack efficiency, let alone AI and VR, are providing opportunities for communicators and marketers to leverage an increased range of channels and creative strategies to reach and engage audiences. Time scales are shrinking. Leaders must be prepared for direct, swift, trustworthy, global action to stay relevant and effective and many organizational cultures are not ready for this shift.

So, as businesses and brands start to re-evaluate their post-Corona world, where to start? How have things changed and what will be different?  First, accept that nothing will ever be quite the same again and there are massive challenges and opportunities ahead. Why not  take the chance to redefine previous roles, responsibilities and relationships to embrace the post-Corona world to build new agile and fluid processes that can harness the drivers of technology, globalization and shrinking times scales to deliver relevant, impactful and effective marketing and communications strategy? It’s time to become more agile.

Agility: “The ability to create and respond to change, It is a way of dealing with, and ultimately succeeding in, an uncertain and turbulent environment” (

This concept has been evolving in the tech industry for several years and it has been highly successful for some businesses particularly in new product or service launches. A project management technique, agile is where solutions evolve through the collaborative efforts of cross-functional teams. It’s an iterative process working in a cycle of research, create, test, adapt, repeat. The roots lie in the software industry when in 2001, a group of software engineers wrote the Agile Manifesto with the aim of finding better ways to work. 

They identified the core value as:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

Working software (outputs) over comprehensive documentation

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

Responding to change over following a plan

As we start to emerge from lockdowns into altered economic environments, the idea of creating a core group, within an organization that purely looks at recovery strategy and redefining relevance for key influencer and customer groups provides the opportunity to review the past but plan for the future. A chance to test new concepts, leverage new technologies. To move swiftly bringing in expertise and knowledge from all sectors of the business as required, whilst remaining laser focused on delivering results, adapting, improving and executing without the constraints of the usual organizational process.

What should the team look like?  First and foremost, it should be a small group of highly experienced and talented people who can work together across time zones and cultures. They should have a broad knowledge base and the ability to grasp new concepts and be able to think across multiple disciplines both internally and externally. The team needs clear and open lines of communication throughout the business in order to facilitate quick input and decision making when required. They must be empowered to make decisions and to move fast with the responsibility for implementing their decisions and accountability for results. They must act and think with fluidity! Oversight from the C-Suite is essential but has to remain at a distance or be committed to supporting in real time, not delay progress with “pre-Corona” processes.

Agility is not a new concept and it has long been supported as a valuable methodology but for too long it has been confined to the IT department, software or product development. It has real value in driving focus, and it is exactly that kind of thinking that we need to embrace to rebuild so much after the pandemic ends.  There is value in applying this methodology to marketing and communications but there are also challenges.  It requires new thinking, commitment, and courage to understand the changing dynamics, identify the unknowns and adapt to new paradigms.

With traditional working patterns disrupted, and teams collaborating online, there has never been a more opportune moment to embrace fluidity and leverage talent and technology. Carpe Diem!