What is the Shelf Life of Normal?

As workplaces try and adjust to the circumstances dictated by the pandemic, fluidity is key.

Thursday, October 31, 2013, is not a date that stands out in the minds of most Americans. Sure, it was Halloween. But beyond trick-or-treaters, their parents, and candy manufacturers, this specific date wasn’t anything special— unless you were a frequent flyer.

From the time cell phones were commercially introduced in 1983, airlines required that these devices be turned off during a flight. The impetus for this regulation was the concern that cellular devices might interfere with an airplane’s avionics and navigation systems. But 30 years later, the Federal Aviation Administration put out press release 13010, “Expanding Use of Passenger Portable Electronic Devices.” The FAA determined airlines could safely allow passengers to use portable electronic devices such as cell phones during all phases of flight. The announcement explained that due to differences among fleets and operations, implementation would vary among airlines. All things considered, the agency anticipated that all carriers would safely implement the new rule for cellular use in airplane mode, gate-to-gate, by the end of the year.

As a frequent business traveler, I often begin my week in an airplane, and November 4, 2013, was no exception. My first flight was from Santa Ana to Phoenix on Southwest Airlines. As the flight pushed back from the gate, the flight attendant announced that due to an exciting FAA rule change, passengers could now leave their cell phones on during the flight. All we needed to do was make sure our device was switched into airplane mode.

That Tuesday, I flew with a second airline from Phoenix to Minneapolis. There was no announcement during boarding or in flight about the new cell phone rule, and not a word from the crew.

Wednesday was a flight from Minneapolis to Dallas with my third airline of the week. Many passengers had heard about the new FAA rule, and during boarding the flight attendant fielded question after question about leaving cell phones on during the flight. Exasperated, he made an announcement over the PA system: “We just learned about an FAA rule change on cell phone use last week. The airline is evaluating the rule change and will let passengers know what it means as soon as possible, but for now you all have to turn your cell phones completely off during this flight.”

Thursday was a flight back home from Dallas with the same airline I had flown the day before. This time, at the gate, the counter agent announced that the airline had not yet developed a plan to implement the new FAA rule.

With this regulation, “normal” was redefined on October 31, 2013—at least relative to portable electronic device use in airplanes. Southwest Airlines’ vision is to be the world’s most loved, most efficient, and most profitable airline. One value that drives the company to fulfill its vision is simple: Stay agile. Agility is part of how Southwest succeeds as normal is continually redefined. The airline’s quick adaptation to and communication of the new FAA rule demonstrated this.

Normal has a short shelf life. Whether we’re discussing the business environment or personal activities in daily life, the definition of normal is in perpetual motion, though speed can vary. Consider the extraordinary impact of the COVID- 19 pandemic on business. According to Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace 2021 Report, almost one out of three working people on the planet—just over 1 billion adults— lost their job or business because of the coronavirus situation. “Normal” in the business environment was redefined in early 2020 as the economic impact of the pandemic unfolded. Businesses that survived or thrived did so under a new, rapidly evolving definition of normal. Demand, supply, supply chains, manufacturing, logistics, workforces, worker availability, transportation, and most aspects of the global economy experienced multiple redefinitions of normal.

As the world prepares to move beyond COVID, there is a lot of talk about the new normal, as though it is a destination. While an extraordinary episode (like a global pandemic) can stimulate a desire to reach the next stability plateau, normal is a continually unfolding context, constantly being redefined. What we perceive as normal is simply a point on a continuum of dynamic change to which we become accustomed. Ergo, normal must be continually redefined.


Effective leaders recognize the need for unceasingly redefining normal and building on this reality to guide their organizations in earning and sustaining relevance— pertinence, meaningfulness, importance—with employees, customers, and all stakeholders. As post-COVID operating models emerge, leaders need to ask, what comes next for this organization, and what will it take for our company to earn and sustain relevance with our stakeholders tomorrow?

The next phase of normal is a constantly evolving story for each organization to write. In many companies today, what’s next is reframing where and how work happens—at home, in a company facility, or in a shared workspace. Context for addressing these questions is the ecosystem within which a company operates. Here are five considerations in evaluating where and how work happens as normal evolves for your business:

What role does work location play in organizational culture? On an adaptive basis, when COVID-era normal began, triaging work locations to keep the business operating made sense. The new continually evolving normal requires leaders to intentionally revisit culture as core to the organization’s operating model. How does your company’s culture translate to remote employees? How will a hybrid work environment refine your culture? What cultural tradeoffs will be necessary to support a hybrid workforce?

How does the location of work performance impact operating processes? Every activity in an organization is part of a larger process, though not always by design. Activity-process connectivity is stronger when intentionally designed. Intentional process design increases the likelihood that activities will produce desired outcomes. When work locations are disparate, operating processes can be compromised, resulting in reduced effectiveness. How will management design new processes to be performed across work locations? What changes to operating procedures are necessary to optimize effectiveness across work sites? How will procedural documents be updated to include remote work sites?

How does your operating model need to adjust to accommodate ongoing remote work? Business operating models have a lifespan. When leaders embrace the unceasing redefinition of normal, they ask the following: How does our operating model align with today’s reality? How will it align with what we anticipate as reality tomorrow? How do we create and sustain relevance with customers across a remote team of employees? What are the economic implications of a remote or hybrid work location model?

What are long-term implications for customers of remote or hybrid work locations? Early in the COVID era, customers were forgiving of service missteps. They understood that companies were making quick adjustments to service delivery approaches. Over time, as new phases of normal evolved, expectations followed. Customers recalibrated views of normal and thresholds for forgiveness. How will your company earn and sustain relevance with customers as the next phases of normal unfold? How does a remote or hybrid work location model affect your customers? What needs to change in your customer experience roadmap to deliver consistently across your business?

How can you raise managers’ remote leadership acumen? Few managers have been trained in remote leadership. Management is a challenging discipline when a team is present in the same location. Add a remote, virtual element and complexity increases. What were strengths and challenges of your leadership team in pre-COVID normal? What new strengths and challenges came to light during the pandemic? How will your managers develop their remote leadership acumen? How will managers assure expected levels of employee engagement in a hybrid operating model?

As the operating environment changes, sustaining a focus on what your company does (mission), why you do it (purpose), and how you fulfill your mission (strategy) leads to greater organizational stability. Everything a leader does must be aligned with the vision to guide people and priorities. Absent a clear vision, organizations, processes, and leaders inevitably drift from their goals. This principle is particularly important in fast-moving environments where stability is achieved through anchoring to the guiding vision. With a clear vision, organizations can find comfort in uncertainty, grounding through change and stability in progress. In an environment where normal is unceasingly redefined, stability and strategic resilience stem from alignment with the organization’s vision.

At the beginning of this century, a technology revolution was taking place. Commercial applications of the Internet proliferated, and redefinition of normal in the business world was rapidly unfolding. In early 2000, an epic merger took place between companies from different worlds. The deal, valued at $165 billion, was the largest in history at that time. The resulting company—AOL Time Warner—became the world’s largest media conglomerate. America Online, a new world media company, played a lead role in the emerging internet arena, delivering dial-up internet access, web browser capability, and email. Time Warner, a legacy media organization, had deep roots in entertainment, film, music, and print.

It didn’t take long for issues to arise as the companies came together. Early on, culture clashes between the two companies became evident. Steve Case, founder and CEO of AOL, left the board of the combined company in 2005, declaring the merger a failure. As reported by Business Insider, soon after his departure, Case said, “Vision without execution is hallucination. Having a good idea is important, but being able to execute the idea is even more important, and that comes down to people and priorities, and we were unable with the combined AOL Time Warner company to get that side of it right.” Vision guides people and priorities and informs execution when the definition of normal is in perpetual motion.


In my book, Leading from Zero: Seven Essential Elements of Earning Relevance, I discuss a set of factors that contribute to overlooking strategic implications of a continually unfolding new normal. Here are three of those factors and potential ways to mitigate them when engaging in the emerging normal:

Legacy fallacy. This factor is defined by a reliance on the view that what got us here will get us to the future. Competencies matter, but they do not operate in isolation. Leaders walk a fine line between building upon legacy success factors and overreliance on yesterday’s success formula.


  • Anchor in an appreciation for the organization’s history without attachment to the way we’ve always done things.
  • Recognize that an operating playbook is only applicable to a specific set of circumstances; when normal is redefined, the playbook requires refinement.
  • Continually fine-tune the organization’s vision, priorities, and activities as new phases of normal unfold. This is necessary to carry a successful organization into its future state.

Denial of imminent change indicators. The perspective that current results, performance, customer behavior, or competitive changes are simply anomalies enables a narrative where leaders wait until things “get back to normal” before digging deeper into root cause. The longer changing conditions are rationalized as anomalies, the greater the risk to the organization.


  • Implement an operating agreement co-owned by all team members that requires review of performance variances by a peer in another area of the business. The peer review purpose is to generate questions and observations that shine a light on imminent change unintentionally rationalized by team members closest to the circumstances.
  • Include dedicated time in regular business operating reviews to explore new, emerging, or potential trends external to the organization. This can include new market research, competitor actions, industry analyses, and team members’ observations. The committed time allows operating managers to shift attention from current reality to environmental factors they might otherwise overlook or deny.

Unconventional wisdom. Because we think differently, we must be right—right? In his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, leadership author Marshall Goldsmith says, “People who think they can do no wrong usually can’t admit they are ever wrong, which, paradoxically, makes you more wrong.” At an organizational level, this factor inhibits leaders’ ability to see emerging changes in their operating environment until it is too late to perform as a first responder in the unfolding normal.


  • Recognize that while contrarian views can have value, different isn’t always better.
  • Ask yourself and your colleagues, what is the substance supporting our position on this issue? If the answer sounds like rationalizing difference for the sake of difference, examine the position and determine how it aligns with the organization’s vision, priorities, and objectives, in the context of an evolving next new normal.

In today’s reality, the shortest measurement of time is known as the zeptosecond—one trillionth of a billionth of a second, or a decimal point followed by 20 zeroes and a 1. While not scientifically supported, I suggest the shelf life of normal is close to a zeptosecond, requiring leaders to make the redefinition of normal core to their practice.


Article by Dave Coffaro, originally published by the American Management Association, October 11, 2021. Image credit: American Management Association

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