Leading through a Crisis

Keep on flying the plane

A friend of mine flies ‘Jumbo jets’ for British Airways. Despite the fact he looks far too young to have all that responsibility he does know a thing or two. I asked him a while ago what struck him about the pilot training he completed. One phrase which stayed with me, probably because it is pure common sense, was this; “The first thing you are taught is that whatever else happens you have to keep on flying the plane”. That means that even if there is a fire to deal with somewhere on the aircraft making sure the plane stays airborne is still number one priority.

It’s a principle I have regularly shared with leaders in crisis that I coach and train as well as using it myself.

We have a massive crisis on our hands which is providing all sorts of challenges for leadership.

  • It is truly global.
  • Almost nobody has been through anything like this before.
  • No-one knows what will happen next.
  • And many of us are coming to terms with it in isolation.

If it were Hollywood, then some unlikely anti-hero emerges to save the day. They usually demonstrate strength of character, they make quick unilateral decisions, they lead from the front, and they overcome people’s doubt and distrust, ultimately proving that their path was the right one to take. Unfortunately, this isn’t Hollywood and none of us are Tom Cruise or Angelina Jolie.

How can we navigate the turbulence?

So, in addition to knowing ‘our own keep on flying the plane’ priorities what is available to us to work out what is going on and assist us in navigating through the turbulent air?

The Cynefin framework created by David Snowdon about 20 years ago, is a tool that can provide a starting point. It’s a model that builds understanding of situations we face and provides guidance on what steps to take. The framework consists of 4 domains which essentially describe different categories of situations or problems: the categories or domains are simple, complicated, complex and chaotic.

The coronavirus and its accompanying challenges have the characteristics associated with the chaotic and complex domains. We certainly don’t have checklists or SOP’s for this crisis, and no best practice to fall back on, which are the ways we typically approach simple and complicated domains or issues. It is fair to say that best practice is emerging for our societies from early experiences across the globe, but fewer lessons have yet come to the fore for organisations or leaders. So, you will need to improvise your way through this crisis as it emerges and that might feel very, very, uncomfortable for many of us.

What David Snowdon recommends when facing these chaotic situation types is fast action first, followed by sensing how things are unfolding as we act and then responding to emerging events as we learn how successful our actions have been. That is very different to what most leaders do for the majority of their career, and It requires a very different response to steady-state leadership. Acting, sensing, and responding requires a very different mindset and skillset, and some well-honed and nuanced leadership skills.

Make the Decisions You Can

Acting fast requires fast decisions.

The challenge here is this; we don’t know what we don’t know! So, in this crisis, that is totally unique how do you decide what to do? Can you afford to make poor decisions? Will taking a more cautious and slower approach add more risk?

It’s impossible to know for sure but here are a few principles that could guide us.

Principle 1: Don’t try to make all the decisions. 

You won’t be able keep up with the volume and speed of decisions required. And you don’t need to make them all anyway.

Principle 2: Decide who makes what decisions and communicate it clearly.

Encourage people to step in and take responsibility in their realm. Make sure decisions are made at the right level, make the outcomes or objectives very clear and trust people to do the right thing.

Principle 3: Provide rubrics so people can make better decisions in the right time frame.

The three I recommend are below:

  • Keep refreshing meaning
  • Critique everything you act on
  • Consider if decisions are reversible

Stay Mentally Current. Convert information into Meaning.

This is a critical skill for any decision maker in situations that change quickly. The age-old adage ‘rubbish in rubbish out’ applies, so gather information carefully. One element of this is listening to your team, listening to experts, and getting regular updates, however the critical element is to use this information to revise your mental models and create a new world view. Spend time reflecting on what you have collected to find insights and draw conclusions for your own context.

Critique Everything. 

Secondly, critique everything that has been put in place – does anything need to be modified, dropped, accelerated or improved in any way? And once you decide changes are necessary to actions you have introduced then visibly and quickly make them, and, be open about your reasons.

Is it a one-way decision or can you reverse out?

Reversable decisions are easy ones to make quickly. Significant or important ones need more scrutiny and research, more debate and people involved, but this can be compressed in times of crisis. For example, the decision to send office-based employees to work at home was relatively easy as getting them back into the workplace would be easy. For workforces in factories there were more things to consider and put in place, and so the decision and implementation took longer but many factories have now sent people home as well.

In the case of irreversible substantial decisions (such as letting employees go, for example) then rushing them is foolhardy and risky; allowing events to unfold, sensing what the impact will be, and in parallel conducting research, risk management, costing, etc is more sensible. In this arena keeping the true purpose of the organisation in mind is also fundamental in making coherent decisions. Considering all aspects before making decisions of this type is critical as they can’t be reversed. And just as important to consider is that when emotions are high, and time is short people want action; as a leader it is your job to apply the brakes to be sure it’s the right decision to take.

If you have devolved decisions it is critical to share these principles and rubrics with all your decision makers so they can be applied across the board. Or you can use your own preferred way of making sense of the chaos and making decisions but do make sure it’s a shared and coherent one.

Sense and Learn

Fail forward fast. Be vigilant and learn on the fly.

Many organisations have been adopting agile approaches over the last decade, and even longer than that in some quarters. If you haven’t done so, then now is the time to jump on board! One of the key issues about living in an exponential world is accepting that you can’t perfect things before they get adopted. This is the first big leap in cultivating an agile mindset. And in this current crisis that is exactly how it is playing out; everyone is making decisions with only some of the info they need as well as feeling uncertain about the impact when it is put into practice. For many of us now it feels like we are flying the plane blindfolded, or at best with one eye closed!

The key thing to operating in this way is to watch closely how things unfold, picking up critical information and learning from it – fast. It means probing issues where necessary, constantly gathering data and sensing the mood in your organisation. It entails relying on reliable networks and feedback loops in order to get a full picture from the whole of your system. This is what David Snowdon means by ‘sensing’ – being finely tuned into what is emerging!

Share. Listen. Discuss.

“Transparency is job one for leaders in a crisis. Be clear about what you know, what you don’t know and what you are doing to learn more”.

Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership & Management, Harvard Business School

In chaotic/complex crises fast action and ongoing communication go hand-in-hand. As Amy Edmondson states above, thoughtful regular communication is top of the list. It shows people what they need to do, it provides you with much needed intel, and it also calms anxiety and provides comfort within your team, your suppliers, customers and community. It is also really important to communicate with qualified optimism, not pure optimism: people will see through pure optimism straight away, so you need to be balanced by talking straight and openly about the challenges ahead.

In times like this people crave information so it is important to ‘speak to the head’ with facts, information and practical advice. And do it well and often so people don’t feel a vacuum and start filling it with nonsense. It’s just as important to show that you care, listen to people’s concerns, acknowledge how people are feeling and empathise with them by connecting with their hearts. And it’s not a one-way street so genuinely listen and show your own heart and share your feelings. For most of us doing both does not come naturally, we usually favour one. It’s a challenging duality and paying more attention to our least preferred way of being with people is what is required.

And finally, as you communicate it helps to have the core purpose of your organisation top of mind. Doing this will help maintain that connection between the individual and the collective, employees and the business. In fact, research shows that when this happens employees are more likely to still be around to help rebuild after the crisis subsides. In fact, 79% of people say that an organisation’s purpose is critical to success in a crisis, yet those same people also say only 32% of leaders use it as a compass to make decisions.

Be present. Be visible. Be available.

In chaotic crises having a framework to guide your actions can really assist you in coping with challenges as they emerge. There are no guarantees and there is no certainty, and you will definitely have to improvise. However, paying attention to how you decide and act quickly, building in distributed decision layers and feedback loops to sense-make unfolding events, and, empathising and informing people so they stay onboard, will guide you through the crisis. It will also provide your people with leadership that is real, commercial, and yet sensitive to what people need in crises; the hope that something better is coming. The coming months are likely to feel like a very bumpy flight; but there is hope if the plane stays in the air.

“We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon”.

       Franklin D. Roosevelt


Phil Isle – Partner, CONTRACT
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