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The Coronavirus crisis has now firmly set in across the UK. Plans are constantly changing and being updated but the trajectory is now clear. The country will move to lockdown or near-lockdown in progressive stages to contain the spread of infection. Different public services and vital private sector enterprises will focus on alleviating the problems associated with managing the virus and the lock down: the Treasury rolling out income support and other plans to support business continuity; the health system building intensive care bed capacity (the clear bottleneck in the system currently); police and the military planning for a range of lockdown scenarios and potential public order challenges; grocery chains are trying to refine their just-in-time supply chains to get food to people.
Crisis decision-making approaches and their evolution
The decision-making relating to Coronavirus in each of the areas of government and the private sector up to now has – or should have been! – been based on an understanding that the current situation is chaotic. But as knowledge about the virus, its impact and the impact of the counter-measures that government and society has put in place evolve, the nature of decision-making should be changing too. The action bias that is required in response to a crisis should therefore diminish slightly. In parallel, organisations should be starting to realise that while every bit of their organisation is affected by the current crises – they are all affected in different ways.
Business as usual in a crisis
I believe that one of the biggest threats to organisations and society now is failure to ensure effective ongoing decision-making and action in those areas of any organization that are not strictly in crisis mode. Many of us, myself included, have been feeling anxious – and the risk is that this paralyses us. We spend our productive working hours (mine are MUCH reduced now my wife and I are splitting the childcare for two toddlers!) in a state of near-zero productivity. We look on in horror, feeling our work is largely irrelevant to the main fight, and processing emotional personal issues and decisions (sick relatives, whether they can go to the park and get their toddlers to stick to social distancing!).
Yet many of the things we are doing are just as important as they were before the virus struck. That systems upgrade that was going to save hours of nurses or doctors time, the legal contract that would create a new joint venture to create new fire prevention technologies, the appointment of a qualified accountant to ensure you didn’t go bust, are all valuable things to be doing. Some will even save lives as well as create jobs.
How can we ensure we still decide and act appropriately? Here are five ideas that might work for your organization.
- Tell one of the best people in the leadership team that their main responsibility is to maintain progress on business as usual. Not every organization will need this role, but those that are highly tied up in crisis management and Coronavirus response will. Free up a chunk of their time and let them use it creatively to support effective decision-making and action across the organization – beyond the corona-specific response. What they do will need to vary, and they may need a team to support. They – or maybe your crisis response lead if your organization is not totally ungulfed by Corona response – will then need to help the organization to…
- Clarify whether your core goals or priorities are affected: Coronavirus is making people face the reality that no plan survives contact with the enemy… but that doesn’t mean you need to abandon your long-term goals. Normally, you will actually need to confirm and continue to communicate the importance of your existing priorities alongside crisis response. Unless the fundamentals of your sector have been changed, this should be a quick exercise that builds redoubled commitment of the leadership team to keep the show on the road, and creates a clear message to communicate to all employees and stakeholders.
- Refocus teams on areas they can make the biggest difference. Some projects or activities just won’t make sense anymore. Decisively put them on hold – perhaps giving team 1 or 2 days to do a complete status update and knowledge capture so things can be picked up seamlessly later. In other areas, though, perhaps this is a chance to go further and faster. Be ambitious, while recognizing the natural rhythms and dynamics of projects. There’s no point pretending that people will work as mindfully on a recruitment campaign that isn’t going to go live until after the virus unless you’ve got amazing leadership/ culture, or some pretty meaningful incentives in place. If your organization already has good project, programme and portfolio management disciplines in place, then this reprioritization exercise will be relatively easy to do – if not, this reprioritization exercise could provide a template for future good practice!
- Maintain and sharpen up business as usual meetings. Most organisations have terrible weekly and monthly meetings that are too long and not sufficiently focused on their core purpose. Leapwise helps organisations cull and sharpen these up, freeing up time by delegating decisions, moving information-sharing to technology platforms, building better decision-making behaviour and disciplines and reinvesting time in the most critical decisions for the organization. If you’re in an organization that is fundamentally affected by Coronavirus, then there is definitely a need to cut any unnecessary meetings. However, beware cancelling your critical organizational meetings and processes – particularly if they’re already effective. These meetings are the opportunity to maintain rigour and focus in decision-making and action across the organisation. For example, one of these meetings will provide the forum to agree the reprioritized objectives and action plans of different departments identified through the exercise above.
- Create a daily rhythm to maintain pace: If your teams haven’t got in place a really quick morning ‘huddle’ then put one in place as a matter of urgency (virtual please!). Working remotely makes this all the more important to help teams stay co-ordinated and connected, ensuring good decisions on what work to prioritise daily and supporting information flows. 20 minutes is usually enough because you should have other channels for wider information sharing (e.g. Slack, messaging). Consider putting a different person in charge of the huddle each week with free reign to do things in a different way – and then pick the approaches that are best for you.
- Support managers to lead in uncertainty: Coronavirus creates a real challenge for leaders, as most people aren’t comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty. See this as an opportunity for every person in your organization to grow and adapt and provide them with support and training on leading effectively in these times.
Organisations that already have a robust decision-making eco-system – good governance, strong meeting management, data-informed decision-making, feedback-loops and learning cultures – will be in a good place to do all these things well. But every organization will need to put some thought into how they maintain momentum in areas that are important but not urgent.
It can feel incredibly difficult to make decisions at a time like this – as individuals and organisations. Each one of us has a lot of decisions to make at home. For example, I’m currently working out how I balance work with childcare for two toddlers, how I protect vulnerable relatives, and how I can minimise frequent shopping when my boys only seem eat cheese! These kinds of questions use up ‘cognitive bandwidth’, draining the resources available for decisions in our work lives (and with pretty disastrous effects according to a range of studies).1 What’s more, we are faced by extraordinary levels of uncertainty – something most people handle pretty badly. In fact, a recent study suggests that psychologically we probably hate uncertainty more than we dislike certain calamity!
Uncertainty tends to leads to decision paralysis – which can be (literally) fatal. This is why it can be helpful to fall back on some things we know about how best to make decisions in uncertain times. Leapwise has created a lot of different tools and frameworks for better decision-making but sometimes stealing from the brilliant work of others is the way to go. This is why we often use the Cynefin framework to support organisations to think about the situations they are facing. Developed by Dave Snowden for IBM, this framework says that there are no hard and fast rules for how to make decisions, but instead we need to recognize that different types of problem call for different response types (our adaptation of this framework is shown in Figure 1).
Some decisions – which screwdriver to use for which screw, for example, are simple and can be based on rules. Here, we should in general be looking to codify rules and increasingly automate decision-making.
Other decisions are complicated. The system under examination follows clear and reasonably stable rules of cause and effect, but we need to conduct analysis to uncover these rules. This is a domain suited to analytic problem solving and the application of domain expertise – for example, working out how to price a product to get as much profit as possible.
The complex domain is where most leadership decisions occur, for example working out how to motivate employees. Social and environmental systems can be influenced by different actions, but the rules of cause and effect are unstable, non-linear and often change. Many different interventions might be helpful, but they equally will have impacts (positive or negative) elsewhere in the system. In the employee motivation example, for example, you might find that introducing bonuses gets factory workers to produce more but they become so focused on output that they stop suggesting ways to improve product quality, or cooperating with those picking up goods for distribution.
The chaotic domain is basically the one where no one really knows what’s going on. Cause and effect are very unclear and levels of complexity are so great that solutions aren’t clear. Think the immediate aftermath of a terror incident – or indeed the outbreak of an unknown virus… Here, the key is to act in any helpful way possible to start to bring more order to a situation, until it stabilizes to a level you can start to tackle more fundamental aspects of the problem. A strong action-bias is a very good thing here, because when no one knows what to do exactly, the risks of paralysis are high. Do any helpful thing you can to bring more stability to the situation.
What is clear about Coronavirus is that – like many problems – it is not exactly obvious whether the situation is chaotic or ‘simply’ complex. My sense is that it was highly chaotic until around 22nd or 23rd March, and the main critique of government, interestingly enough, was that it was insufficiently directive during that period. I’ve seen 94% approval ratings for the 23rd March announcements on restrictions and plans to use the police to enforce them, which is incredible – and does suggest that government is perhaps following rather than leading public appetite for order. Now, however, I think we are probably shifting into the complex domain. This will, I think, require a different approach – ideally, organizing the various strands of effort and activity as a series of experiments to tackle different aspects of the problem while co-ordinating activities across the different areas.
Like government, your organization will likely be making an array of decisions at the moment. And, as in government, you should be thinking about what type of situation you are in – and the decision-making style that might best fit that context. I hope this framework helps.
1. In their excellent book, Scarcity, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, show just how severely anxieties and preoccupations affect decision quality
We’re delighted to announce a new data insight and forecasting partner for Leapwise, Skarp. Skarp uses machine learning and statistical algorithms to forecast demand for services, to understand drivers of demand, and to evaluate the performance of services. Their technology and expertise can be applied to anything from crime figures to A&E demand and Leapwise will be supporting the Skarp team to ensure the insights their technologies generate are used to drive different, better decisions. High quality data and insight is a critical component of decision making and we’ll be working closely together to bring new insights to life in your organisation. If you need support in developing your forecasting and insight capability to make better, faster decisions, get in touch! hashtag#ai hashtag#data hashtag#decisionmaking hashtag#machinelearning hashtag#analytics