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.