Leading in Crisis

“Never let a good crisis go to waste.” -Winston Churchill

COVID-19 is top of mind for every institution right now – countries, businesses, universities, and families everywhere are adapting to a new, scary reality. What we’ve seen so far are just the early effects of this crisis – only a glimpse of what will follow. But what we do know is this: unlike other shocks, a global pandemic is disruptive to the work we do as well as our ways of working. We have to simultaneously adapt our business plans to account for unexpected turbulence and potentially do so while working in a distributed, remote environment with which we may not yet be comfortable.

Operating Rhythm: Driving Productivity in Chaos

Information about coronavirus both true and false is spreading unconstrained, and people are making decisions with limited contextual understanding. Organizations that are feeling the crunch from this crisis may want to consider evolving and accelerating their existing operating mechanisms to create a common operating picture and venue to rapidly cross-level learnings.

Every organization has an operating rhythm, which is a deliberate cycle of meetings that synchronizes current and future operations. In chaotic environments, people crave credible information from a trusted source – offering a regular (perhaps even daily) update on what you are learning and how you are adapting can drive stability in a highly volatile environment. When there is insufficient information about how the company is reacting, people will make assumptions and write their own headlines to fill in the gaps. Deliberate communication around the crisis allows you as a leader to drive the news cycle, quell rumors, and share critical updates.

The complexity of the outbreak parallels that of combat, as there are more unknowns than knowns and the situation is constantly morphing. In the Global War on Terror, the Joint Task Force leveraged a 90-minute daily Ops & Intelligence update to cross-level the 30,000+ Task Force on the situation and learnings from the previous day, providing leaders with the information and context they needed to make better decisions locally. This “Keystone Forum” brought together key constituencies to create a common operating picture given how fast the environment was changing.

Enacting a Keystone Forum can benefit any organization coping with a complex operating environment. You can think of it as an interactive knowledge management system, where parties come together on a regular cadence to learn from one another and share how they are adapting as they execute.

Collaborating in a Distributed Environment

Teams that previously worked in close quarters may now find themselves working from distant living rooms, relying exclusively on virtual communication for their collaborative requirements. One way to combat the challenges of becoming a suddenly distributed workforce is to encourage your teams and the teams with which they collaborate to develop a set of team and cross-team norms, or “working agreements”, that outline a shared set of guidelines for how the teams will interact when they are not co-located. Below are a few examples of working agreements that help teams maintain positive communication while working remotely:

  1. When we’re working, we’ll keep our chat tool up-and-running and be responsive to questions. If something comes up that requires a longer discussion, we’ll hop on a video call to chat face-to-face.
  2. We will use videoconferences for meetings and will keep our cameras on so our non-verbal communication is not lost. We will behave the same way we would if we were sitting around a table together.
  3. We will over-communicate information and decisions that may be pertinent to the team to ensure the message reaches everyone who needs to hear it.

Asking that teams develop these agreements and hold one another accountable for following them helps teams avoid the mistrust that too often accompanies distributed working relationships.

Concluding Thoughts

Rudyard Kipling said it best: “If you can keep your wits about you while all others are losing theirs, and blaming you. The world will be yours and everything in it.” It feels like the world is melting down as we speak. Everyone is trying to figure out what to do with the information they can get. For most of us, this is the first time since the financial crisis that the world feels like complete chaos – but unlike in 2008, all of us have a say in how we can respond.

If you are leader of a team, be it one team or many, now is your opportunity to step up and lead. As leaders your choices will be a list of imperfect options. It is critical that you align the team on a set of immediate goals and actions and then rapidly learn and pivot as the situation evolves. Change, learn, change again. Organizations that do this well during times of crisis almost always come out stronger in the end.

For leaders that have been wrestling the organization resistance to change, now is your opportunity. The decisions and bureaucratic friction that usually constrains change is momentarily relaxed. Seize this opportunity to make those changes that would usually be much harder to do otherwise.

 

By David Silverman & Jess Reif