The Great Resignation: An Empty Office
The Great Resignation: Navigating Disruptive Change
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Written by AJ Kulatunga

February 20, 2022

With The Great Resignation in full swing organisations far and wide are scrambling to work out how to address this as a talent problem. However, if you consider the phenomena as an effect of disruptive change, then all sorts of possibilities emerge to tackle it and future proof your organisation to reduce the impact of it happening again. 

The Potential of Disruptive Change

Oxford Languages defines disruption as “disturbance or problems which interrupt an event, activity or process”, however many of us might be more familiar with the term within the context of innovation. “Disruptive Innovation” is a term coined in 1995 by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen to describe the effects of new business models impacting existing juggernauts of industry.

We know the effects of disruptive innovation through the rise of companies like AirBnB, Uber and Netflix. These companies all paved the way for a new era of products and services that we never had access to before as consumers. We are no longer slaves to scheduled entertainment thanks to Netflix. We have more flexibility in where we stay thanks to AirBnB. And because of Uber, we now have a much better experience with… Taxis.

We now live in a world where we can hit a button on our phone and summon food, transport and even a potential life partner. These conveniences have been brought about because disruptive change has impacted the customer side of the business coin. “The Great Resignation” is the result of disruptive change affecting the other side of the business coin: employees.

Why is the Great Resignation Happening?

To really figure out what is “The Great Resignation” and why it is happening, we need to take a step back and look at disruptive change.

A major catalyst for disruptive change is a massive disconnect between what companies think they provide and what customers actually experience. Because customers tolerated bad experiences for so long, they were all too happy to switch to a new option that better suited their needs. It appears the same disconnect exists today between companies and employees. 

A recent McKinsey study revealed managers believed their people left because of “more money”, “work-life balance” and “increased perks”, but the reality was completely different. 54% of employees revealed they didn’t feel valued by their organisations, 52% by their managers, and 51% also reported not feeling a sense of belonging at work. The talent shift is the result of the exact same disruptive force, just applied in a different way.

To combat the disruptive change felt previously, organisations realised they needed to be more innovative. They redesigned workspaces to be more “funky”, introduced idea competitions and partnered with startups to build an innovation ecosystem. Many innovation experts labelled these activites as “Innovation Theatre” because they were quite visible and entertaining, but did not translate into tangible business results.

Seeing how organisations are fighting to keep employees during “The Great Resignation” today makes me realise they are engaged in something similar that I call “Retention Theatre”. There’s a lot of visibility and celebration around perks such as gift baskets to employees working from home and the “3pm snack cart” for those who brave to return to the office. These are sweet gestures but there is so much more that needs to be done.

How to Combat The Great Resignation

Just as disruptive innovation brought about many improvements for us as consumers of products and services, imagine what we could create to bring employees an equivalent level of comfort and convenience in their professional lives that they already experience in their personal lives? We need to reimaginine the way business operates. This is the biggest truth most leaders misunderstand about “The Great Resignation”.

To reimagine business is to rethink how things get done currently and this can be quite confronting for many. Here are two steps to help you begin the journey. Adding them to your mix of talent attraction, development and retention strategies that will help you future proof your business and unlock incredible, unprecedented value.

Step One: Open Minds

Prepare Today For What’s Coming Tomorrow (image)

The funny thing about disruptive change is that when it hits, those who have been disrupted act as if it were a disaster that no one saw coming. However, like all great disasters throughout history, there have been clues that led to the inevitable, just that no one acknowledged them. 

Consider the origins of AirBnB. What was the hotel industry doing while three “kids” who had no connection to hotels and tourism were busy building out their “little” business idea? Nothing. Because their occupancy rate was fine. They were making money. Everything was going perfectly according to their precious business plans, created by the world’s best consulting firms for millions of dollars. Why would they change anything? 

While there are plenty of statistics around “The Great Resignation” what I found was something more interesting. Gallup have been collecting stats for over a decade on global employee engagement, which has consistently hovered around the 20% mark. This combined with data around previous talent shifts associated with economic booms throughout history, indicate that it was inevitable that some sort of disruptive change was about to occur. So why weren’t more organisations prepared?  

When executives were informed about the existence of AirBnB they laughed it off because who in their right mind would allow complete strangers into their homes to spend the night. Given AirBnB’s $113 billion dollar valuation in 2021, it appears a few people would be absolutely fine with it. It’s this bias that presents the greatest threat to an organisation’s survival against disruptive change. You can’t fix a problem if you refuse to acknowledge it even exists. 

Addressing disruptive change requires opening minds to new ideas and fresh perspectives. Especially if you want to combat what is driving “The Great Resignation”. The founders of the world’s most disruptive companies had no existing ties to the industries that they eventually disrupted. The chances are the next big thing to disrupt your industry won’t come from within it. It’s important that your leaders and teams are exposed to ideas from a wide variety of industries and geographical regions. 

You can do this by sharing resources like articles, videos and podcasts via internal communication channels or perhaps running lunch and learn sessions where guest experts share ideas from their world. On planning days, instead of riding on the coattails of  “That will never happen to us”, challenge thinking to explore “What’s the worst that could happen to us and how could it unfold?”. A closed mind opens no doors.

IBM is a great example of shifting mindsets in terms of its recruitment strategies. Traditionally they required applicants to be degree qualified however now they have shifted to skills-based competencies in order to widen their talent pool – a strategy that has long been used with startups. There’s no real reason why candidates need to be degree qualified in order to perform their duties other than sticking to the old adage “This is the way we’ve always done it.” By adapting their processes they have now exposed themselves to a wider pool of talent which puts them at a significant advantage in the competition for talent. 

Step Two: Activate A Culture of Innovation

The Spectrum of Innovation
The Spectrum of Innovation

Innovation is seen as the conventional antidote to disruption however not all innovation is equal. As a Business Strategist and Global Keynote Speaker on Innovation Culture, a big part of my job is observing how organisations implement innovation and it turns out that it actually sits on a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is “External Innovation” which relates to the commercialisation of ideas into innovative products and services for customers. This is the sexy side of innovation that everyone has got a good handle on already. While this type of innovation is important, the problem is that usually only a select few individuals get to be involved. 

On the other end of the spectrum is “Internal Innovation” and that relates to activating human potential by embracing innovation, creativity and entrepreneurship at work. Some organisations have started to dabble in this area by organising initiatives like design thinking workshops and hosting hackathons. These are adequate to begin the journey but what you really want is an integrated approach that can be scaled throughout the organisation to ensure everyone is involved in building and strengthening a culture of innovation. The Heart Centered Innovation Model is a great framework to use for this purpose. 

Heart Centered Innovation

The Heart Centered Innovation Model is based on four instinctive principles that build upon each other to come up with ideas and solutions that add tangible meaning and purpose to an organisation.

The Care Pillar

Everything begins with the Care pillar because if people don’t care, nothing happens anywhere. Before the pandemic we wanted our leaders to practice empathy – to really understand and appreciate where we are coming from. But now with the pain we’ve experienced, we want our leaders to go beyond empathy and really care about us. A key focus question to ask is “How do we demonstrate that we really care about our people?” 

The Commit Pillar

Since transitioning from small business to working with corporate organisations, I noticed that many people inside an organisation are involved with a whole bunch of things, but they’re not really committed to achieving results. Most of the time that’s because they’re overloaded and don’t have the capacity to care or feel like they aren’t being taken care of adequately. When you commit to something that you don’t care about, you burn out. This is why focusing on the Care Pillar first is so important. A key focus question to ask is “How can we inspire our people to commit to outcomes?” 

The Create Pillar

Once people care and are committed, the next step is to create something of meaning and purpose. This is where a lot of organisations go wrong. Whenever there’s a problem people usually rush in to fix it and create solutions without thinking too much about a wider context. When I ran my technology consulting firm, many of our projects were about redesigning poorly thought out technology solutions, cobbled together by people who didn’t really care and definitely weren’t committed enough to ask deeper questions to find out the root cause of the problem. A key focus question to ask is “What can we create that has real meaning and purpose to our organisation beyond a band-aid solution?”

The Connect Pillar

The last step in the model is to connect whatever has been created with other stakeholders so that they care. If you’ve ever had to deal with a changeover of a core business system to new software you’ll know exactly how it feels when a decision is made in one part of the organisation and the rest of the business is forced to get with the program. We use strategic storytelling to ensure we connect with whoever is impacted so that they care. A key focus question to ask is “What stories can we tell about what we’ve created so that others care?” 

The best thing about Heart Centered Innovation over other models is that it’s naturally intuitive. When you care, you commit. When you commit, you create things with meaning and purpose. And once you’ve created something, you naturally want to tell stories about it so that others connect and care about it just as much as you do. 

I’ve seen the model being used to diagnose and address challenges with sales, talent attraction and retention, business process improvement and leadership development to facilitate more entrepreneurial style leadership within the organisation. Heart Centered Innovation is a powerful framework that will help you build a culture of innovation and creativity within your organisation and future proof against disruptive change. This is the best way to think about recruiting during “The Great Resignation”.

One Last Thing…

Most of us are familiar with psychologist Abraham Maslow’s work on hierarchy of needs: food, shelter, wifi etc. But lesser known is that right before publishing this theory, Maslow spent a bit of time with the Siksika, a First Nations people from Canada. There he learned of an alternative model where instead of self-actualisation being achieved after all other needs are met, tribal members are born into the tribe with a purpose already. Through their involvement with the tribe, they fulfil their purpose and together this partnership achieves “Community Actualisation” – the higher purpose of the tribe.

Instead of treating employees as resources to get things done, imagine if the major driving force of an organisation was to help its people achieve their full potential – and from that partnership, the mission of the organisation continues to be fulfilled through a sense of shared purpose. 

We already spend a majority of our day working, why not make it impactful and contribute towards personal growth? How different would our world be if those Gallup stats were inverted and employees showed up every day inspired, motivated and ready to make a real difference to their customers, colleagues and communities?

Opening minds and activating a culture of innovation and creativity is the perfect way to build out this future especially during “The Great Resignation”. As “Guardians of Talent”, HR and People & Culture Leaders are the essential heroes of the puzzle to making sure that the pressures of disruptive change are no longer felt negatively. Tomorrow can be better than today. And you have the power to make it so.

i-source: Nastuh Abootalebi on Unsplash


About The Author

AJ Kulatunga is an award winning business strategist and global keynote speaker who specialises in activating innovation and entrepreneurial behaviours for corporate organisations and industry associations. His presentations and programs are used by Senior Leaders to navigate uncertainty and reduce resistance to change. Follow AJ on LinkedIN or Twitter.

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