20 Words that Sum Up the Remarkable Year of 2020 and One Word for 2021

  1. Leap … We roared into 2020 but our longest US economic expansion on record ended February 2020 after 128 months of growth1.
  2. Uncertainty … The COVID-19 pandemic revealed itself slowly in partial bits of imperfect information forcing everyone to plan like innovators – incrementally – testing our tolerance for ambiguity2.
  3. Pause … The world paused, briefly. How did you spend your time? While some got to work bettering themselves & their companies, others were overtaken by fear and lack of direction.
  4. Distance … We socially distanced to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Those that were already truly collaborating did not miss the fact that they were in a web meeting instead of a meeting room.  Read that again.
  5. Extremes … We learned that people react differently, sometimes unpredictably when facing a crisis (real or manufactured). It is the sense of urgency that brings reality to the forefront more quickly. Remember that.
  6. Indecision … For some, the uncertainty created a state of analysis paralysis as decisions were viewed as significant, singular Yes/No bets. Innovators lessen this pressure with a series of smaller, incremental bets (we call Gates).
  7. Leadership … We reconfirmed that leading does not mean that you have all of the answers. On the contrary, leading is offering a path for all to journey on together to discover the answers and to respond with distinction.
  8. Empathy … The true innovator’s secret weapon – recognizing that a person’s perception is their reality. Millions took to the streets to protest their perception and millions more acknowledged it as reality.
  9. Facts … We rediscovered the real value of history’s lessons, science and good old fashioned fact-finding to inform and support us through our toughest decisions. Innovators are the ultimate fact-finders.
  10. Deciding … If the expanding economy was all about DOING, this past year has been all about DECIDING. What a tremendous impact a company can make when it becomes a fierce decision factory. It’s all about great Gates.
  11. Change … People have experienced more change to their personal and professional lives and routines in the last 9 months, than in the last 5+ years, and many have discovered that managing change is a highly desirable skill.
  12. Defiance … We experienced the multi-faceted toolkit used to convince people to accept change – logic, incentives, peer pressure, force, recognition.  When managing change, you need a swiss army knife.
  13. Learn … We tend to improve following a failure not because of the failure itself, but because of the reflection that typically follows failure. The brain is jolted and starts to think after the heart breaks.
  14. Authentic … Behind the corporate suit, the authoritative uniform, the façade – we discovered real stories, real people, real family life – and we liked it. Now, we look for that same authenticity in products & brands.
  15. Adapt … While change can be temporary, adapting is sustaining. Adapting is embracing change but then building on it to reflect your strengths. Many companies have discovered it is easier to adapt than to simply change.
  16. Digital … The perfect storm of new emerging technologies + the immediate need to work remotely has accelerated our adoption of the new digital age. The young generation was already there.
  17. Focus … During the pandemic, many firms pursued fewer initiatives, leaders made more Go/No Go decisions, higher allocations of resources were approved & speed to market was improved. Fewer, bigger, better, faster?
  18. Transformation … Some companies have made so many adaptations and pivots to their offerings, their workforce, and their operations that they look nothing like the company they were pre-COVID.
  19. Winners … Right place at the right time? Lucky them. Foresight and ability to respond, adapt and even transform to the changes all around us? Don’t call that luck, that is true innovation capability.
  20. Losers … Unfortunately, along with winners there are many losers. Wrong place at the wrong time? Some. Lack of foresight and ability to respond and adapt? The first time you are caught off guard, it’s an accident. The second time it happens, it’s a decision. Don’t get caught on the losing side in 2021. It’s never too late to start to develop a sustaining innovation capability.

1 Word for 2021

  1. Innovate … Combine what your company does really well with new enabling ideas and technologies to solve important problems for your existing customers and for new markets. When you follow your passion to delight your customers, your transformation will feel seamless especially when your innovation framework (Stage-Gate) is, in of itself, an enabler of transformation.



  1. National Bureau of Economic Research.
  2. Hofstede’s Model.

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