In the Rear-view Mirror and on the Horizon – 2020 & 2021


“Looking back on 2020… let’s not!” so read an ad I saw in a magazine.

I do not recall a year discussed, explored, dissected, and analyzed more than 2020.  It seems it is drowning out the look ahead to 2021 and what the New Year will bring. Most of what you hear is gloom and doom, despair, and fear. Yes, it has been a tough year, especially if you are a healthcare provider or work in the travel/hospitality – related industries.

And that is where the media is focused. What’s missing is the rest of the story – the ingenuity and perseverance for large and small businesses alike to forge ahead in the face of a global pandemic. When I speak with neighbors and friends in manufacturing and the companies that serve them, the consensus is that business isn’t good – it’s great! Orders are up, the backlog is strong, and they can’t find enough workers.

We keep moving forward

Despite how I started this piece, I believe it is healthy and necessary to look back on 2020, as we tend to do every New Year. This year can be a powerful reference point for personal reflection and growth as an organization, business, and society.

I recently participated in a panel discussion where a food industry executive suggested: “that we not let the ‘new normal’ be too much like the old normal.” It caused me to consider what about the old normal do we want to keep?  What have we learned this year that should serve as a springboard for our future?

We have learned to video conference like never before. It is no longer a skill that is dependent on IT or administrative support. But what to make of it?  We no longer have to be in the office, travel, or meet in-person.

I think we find we need to be in-person, at least more than we thought we might. We have come to appreciate the everyday things that we have taken for granted. A handshake, a hug, a meeting in a crowded room. There is a real need to be in-person. I think we acknowledge that there is more to be gained from a meeting with eight people in a room than eight people on Zoom.

We have learned resilience

We have tested our ability to work together under extraordinary circumstances and not only survive but thrive.

There is an old adage; what doesn’t break us makes us stronger. Innovators are resilient, embrace change, and get in front of challenges. One of Austin’s Core Values is innovation.  Our Core Values developed organically. We named people who embody what Austin is and then described them. When we consolidated all of the descriptors, innovation was one of the most frequently used.

We often think of innovation in terms of technology. But many people innovate their processes, ways of thinking, and approach to problem-solving. How do you organize tasks on a construction project to maximize social distancing practices? How do you schedule office work to minimize in-person contact and still maintain productivity and efficiency? How do you develop relationships based on trust in a virtual setting? To innovate, you have to believe that there is a better way and dare to embrace the changes necessary.  Our founder, Samuel Austin, and his son Wilbert believed there was a better way of delivering projects for clients and innovated The Austin Method circa 1904.  Their passion for serving our clients in a better way than the status quo drove them to innovate.

A crisis also drives innovation. In a global pandemic, traditional priorities and conventions get challenged. Conventional thinking said we would not have a vaccine for at least a couple of years. Priorities got rearranged. Typical means of development and testing were challenged and changed.

Think about that! If twelve months ago, you told someone in the pharmaceutical industry that a new injectable drug was developed, tested, and approved in about ten months, they’d say you were dreaming.  Due to innovative thinking, the dream became a reality.

We are more nimble

Communication among team members has gotten wider. Technology is allowing more people to be a part of discussions. But has the availability and convenience of technology caused communication to become shallow? Do we have fewer one-on-one, face-to-face conversations where we ask more questions, probe for more insights, and gain a greater understanding?

I believe the new normal in communications will be a hybrid. It will incorporate both broader and more in-depth discussions because we can and want to. Virtual meetings allow more people exposure to how others think. It is a fruitful platform for presenting and debating ideas. Let’s challenge ourselves to have meaningful dialogs – to probe, discuss, and understand because we now know what it’s like when we cannot do that.

The pandemic has made us more skillful at scheduling and planning. Our resources and teams working in the same space had to shrink. We figured out how to do it and thrive. Let’s remember what we did and how we came up with those solutions and take this thinking with us into 2021 and beyond.

Supply chains got disrupted, but we figured it out in partnership with all stakeholders. Let’s build on that and look at obstacles as an opportunity to grow and become better.

In this 2020 journey we have all been on, we discovered we could do more. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla discussed Pfizer’s leadership through the vaccine’s development. “I’m a true believer that people, they don’t really know their limits. And usually, they have the tendency to underestimate what they can produce.”

We can do more

Perhaps that is the most important lesson we can take from 2020. That we can do more. Let’s not hesitate to dream of what we might be able to do. Let’s take stock of our conventions and priorities and be more willing to make changes.

Let’s continue to dream, believe, and innovate. And remember that it was a crisis that taught us a new normal – a better normal.


President and CEO

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