Transformational lessons from the pandemic

Has business finally ‘unfrozen’ on climate?

Freeze // unfreeze // refreeze // slush: where along Professor Gratton’s pandemic disruption curve are we, when it comes to the sustainability revolution?


Happy anniversary.

As I write this (from home, naturally), it is three years since the start of the first COVID lockdown in the UK. A hard memory for many given all that happened, but an important time to remember and reflect. Just what did the pandemic teach us about work, leadership, and climate – and how can we ensure that these hard-won lessons don’t fade into history?

This was a major theme for episode twenty of the Conversations on Climate Podcast series, with Professor Lynda Gratton. She has made a career out of the future of work: it is the title of her MBA elective; the council she co-chairs at the World Economic Forum; and the subject of her award-winning book The Shift, published a full decade before the pandemic itself.

When COVID hit, Professor Gratton was one of the leading voices analysing, in real time, what it meant for the way we structure the working world. Her articles, published in the Harvard Business Review and elsewhere, introduced me to the freeze-unfreeze model – an elegant and powerful concept for tracing organisational change.

Freeze // unfreeze

Before COVID, Gratton argues, business practises were ‘frozen’. Despite all the talk about next-generation technology, organisations remained stuck in 20th-century model: top-down and office-bound. It took a worldwide pandemic, and the overnight lockdowns that ensued, to ‘unfreeze’ these practises, creating a forced space for experimentation and adaptation. The results were remarkable, as she explained:

I wrote the Harvard Business Review article on making hybrid work, and my lead-in case was Fujitsu. The reason I chose Fujitsu is because of all the countries in the world, it’s Japan who find it difficult to change working practices. And yet within a week, Fujitsu had moved 60,000 people from their offices in Tokyo into their home. It took them three days to do it.

If you’d asked them to do it as a strategy, they’d say: it’s a five-year program, it’s just impossible…[but] one day, all over the world, all companies got thrown into boiling water and they either clambered out of it as fast as they could or they boiled to death.

What comes after unfreezing? ‘The next stage will be something like “refreeze,”’ Gratton explained in 2021, a process whereby ‘new crystals metaphorically begin to form around new systems and routines.’ But in 2021 we were still in ‘the slush,’ a transitional period in which old and new remained fluid but cooling; best practises were unclear; but the struggle to determine the shape of the new normal had begun in earnest.

Plotting the curve

Since recording that episode with Professor Gratton, one question has been circling my mind. The pandemic is now largely in the past; the next great disruption is climate chaos and the shift to truly regenerative businesses and workplaces it necessitates. Where in Gratton’s process are we, when it comes to the sustainability transformation? Is business collectively in the freeze, unfreeze, refreeze, or slush phase?

On the one hand, there are those who say that we are going through a great sustainability un-freezing. As we wake up to the state of the environment, businesses across the world are recognising that they must change their ways. The explosion in ESG leadership, green product lines, and new climate-focused jobs recently demonstrate the depth of this transformation in business practices. We are in a moment of great disruption – and great opportunity.

Others argue instead that we are in the slush. They feel that the green agenda has already upended markets and firms, and organisations are frankly struggling to keep up with the pace of change. Old certainties have been sacrificed to the new gods of ESG. In this view, the point of peak change must surely be behind us; now is the time to pause, sort the useful reform from the destruction, and get business back on track.

Both of these positions are wrong. The former belongs to those climate activists who, in a well-meaning effort to mobilise the majority, are trying to will their future into being through the power of positivity. The latter has the hallmarks of the latest iteration of denialism – climate foot-dragging and calling out the cost of change.

Whilst they originate from opposite sides of the spectrum, what both of these arguments have in common is a supposition that we have already done the hardest part – given up on the old system. They both proclaim that we have made an irreversible shift into the new world, whilst disagreeing on how far through that necessary process we have come. In reality, we have done no such thing. When it comes to climate, business remains in a state of freeze.

An economic system on ice

If you want to know what a frozen system looks like, go to COP. Our marquee climate process is so stuck – so constipated – that it takes 40,000 delegates a fortnight to announce what everyone knew from the beginning, namely that they will need an extension to midnight Sunday before they announce they are kicking the can a bit further down the road.

Frozen looks like governments talking the talk on the green transition, whilst maintaining hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies for fossil fuels each year. In the UK, it’s literally called ‘freezing’ fuel duty!

Frozen is the explosion in the carbon offsetting market – the very definition of wanting to pay someone else to meet a target, without having to do anything materially different as a business.

Here is my top tip for identifying a frozen system: how often is the answer to a necessary question, ‘that’s going to be difficult’? As someone who hosts a climate podcast, I can tell you that it is an increasingly common refrain as I get further down my list of questions each week.

Business has changed – I am not denying that. But so far, the majority of firms have stuck to the easy stuff which doesn’t ask much: the mission statements, the audits, the reports, the new sustainability leads. We’ve got recycled packaging, and offset the rest.

When it comes to real change, our economic system remains frozen in place. Where is the movement on genuine circular economies? Where are the conversations about appropriate scale, finite resources, and regenerative practise? Who is talking about reducing total energy throughput, and finding their steady state? Which business is tackling planned obsolescence, or the creation of unnecessary demand through manipulative advertising and false innovation?

Yes, well…that is going to be more difficult.

Let it go

It will always be more difficult, until one day it’s here and we don’t have a choice, and then it gets done. That is the real lesson of the pandemic. Absent a deus ex machinalike COVID, Fujitsu et al. will always punt genuine transformation five years down the line.

Professor Gratton may be right that our relative inaction on climate versus COVID is because we don’t yet connect it to our own personal safety. That’s a very deep-rooted story about our alienation from the natural world, a story for another time. But I don’t buy the argument that it is because climate is too complex, there are too many stakeholders, or that we are waiting on the right technology. That is oil-lobby talk, foot-dragging talk, Fujitsu-talk.

In reality, I think the business world is largely frozen in fear. To borrow another quotation from Professor Gratton (talking about young people looking to learn in the office, whilst experienced leaders stay home): ‘there are lots of observers, but nobody to observe.’ For all the Unilever’s and Patagonia’s and Arup’s in the world, leaders are still waiting for a truly transformative model that looks safe enough for them to replicate. But if we learnt anything from COVID-19, it is that the best-laid plans don’t last too long anyway. Certainty is not a luxury we have anymore.

After thirty years of process and ever-rising emissions, I don’t know what it will take to truly unfreeze us all. Perhaps it will be the dawning of true panic; perhaps, as with COVID, this panic will be channelled through suddenly-muscular government action. Perhaps we will finally wake up to the reality that our lives, and all that is good in them, are inextricably interlinked with our planet and all our fellow species.

Whatever the catalyst may be, we won’t hit the unfreeze point until we accept that we’re still frozen. Flattering ourselves that we are further along the curve than we are, won’t help at all. Even if well-intentioned, it’s just another – more subtle – form of denial.

We’re not yet in the slush. We’re not even unfrozen yet. We’re not even close.


Listen and watch Season 1: Episode 20 – In conversation with Lynda Gratton

Watch the accompanying conversation on YouTube with Professor Lynda Gratton

Catch up on Season 1


Article originally published on Linkedin by Christopher Caldwell CEO @ United Renewables | MBA, Sustainability Columnist & Podcast host on April 11, 2023