Operating in a Crisis

As we have seen over the last couple of months, things can change very quickly indeed. Going to visit friends or family, visiting the cinema or nipping out for a quick pint seem like distant memories.

A couple of months ago your company had a plan, forecasts, exciting prospects and an eager workforce. Now you probably have challenges around staff being in quarantine, having to work from home, getting raw materials, and changing rules and regulations. If you are unlucky you are shuttered or your customers have disappeared. If you are lucky you may have so much demand that you cannot keep up.

Whatever your situation, Covid-19 has just restructured your organisation for you.

What do you do?

Ideas from the Adaptive playbook can help in this situation.

Things to consider now

  1. The rule book has been thrown out, permission has been granted : It doesn’t matter who you are, what your position, we are all trying to figure out how to survive the next weeks/months of the immediate pandemic, and then the months of rebuilding that will follow. Anything that moves you and your company forward today should be done, there is no time to wait for hierarchies to grant permission, the emergency has already done that. Grab it.
  2. Speed over precision: When the fire is burning you don’t complain about the design of the bucket holding the water. In the current circumstances good enough is where we need to be. Tomorrow may change everything anyway, so it more important to keep the tempo high so you can respond in a timely manner.
  3. Lead don’t manage : To enable speed you can’t have armies of people waiting to be told what to do. Leaders are needed to set direction, empower and enable those armies. People will figure out the details, but they need to know the important things to focus on, and that they won’t get in trouble for trying. Setting a rhythm, tempo and direction will also help with people’s mental wellbeing in a troubling time. This is good for individuals, and will lead to better decisions from less stressed minds.
  4. Create a truth and trust culture : Everyone needs to know the current situation, no matter how grizzly. Shooting the messenger will dramatically reduce the visibility of the group at a time when things are foggy enough as they are. Losing the sensing ability of the whole will massively increase the chances of plunging off a cliff. Constantly adjusting your priorities in light of the most up to date and accurate information you can get is your best chance. When people say what the situation is or that they will do something, they need to be trusted. There is no time to micro-manage; let them get on with it. If the culture is right they will ask for help if needed.
  5. This is a team sport - everyone is involved : Everyone is nervous, worried and wanting a direction forward. Everyone has insights in a particular area, contacts, or past experience. It doesn’t matter where people are in an organisation they all bring something to the table. Indeed the skills you need in crisis may well be in the people who are not so valued in periods of stability.
  6. What you can do, rather than what you did do : Yesterday you made suits, today you are making medical scrubs. You used to make industrial diggers, today you are helping make ventilators. Identity, or people and organisations, is often linked to what we do, therefore changing what we do challenges our view of ourselves and the organisation. Rather than lamenting what has been lost, companies need to look at the possible. This may be different from what they have done so far.
  7. Jobs to roles : Linked to the previous point, people will need to do things that didn’t come up in the interview. The job descriptions have been shredded. Decide what skills are needed now and form temporary roles around them, which could be such things as Supplies Wrangler’, Online Meeting Advisor’, Latest News and Rules Reporter’ or Government Liaison’. People can fill these when needed, or change between them and fill more than one at once. Having a set of roles helps provide a vocabulary for quick planning - if you volunteer for a role you know what it entails.
  8. Transparency and visibility : Everyone needs to understand the situation and what has been agreed so they can move in a coordinated direction. Make that information available to all, either via post-its on a wall or via an online tool.
  9. Ask the team, regularly : Latest change to the rules and don’t know the implication - ask the team. Need to figure out how to get hold of those tricky to get supplies - ask the team. What roles are needed - ask the team. The knowledge of the group is greater than any individual. This will not only result in better decisions, but spread understanding and help build a close and open team.
  10. (Re)Plan daily : Things are moving at such a pace, getting together quickly at the start of, and maybe end of, the day to catch up with what has been achieved, the latest understanding of the situation and adjust the tasks and priorities keeps everyone aligned and the decisions as good as possible.

Things for when the dust has settled

How can you reduce the chance of being caught so badly in the future?
While nothing can really prepare for such massive and rapid change as our current situation, there are somethings that would make your organisation more resilient generally.

  • Move from annual to continuous : Annual planning, budgeting and review cycles are too inflexible to respond to change. Look to move towards multi-level planning, innovation budgeting and continuous appraisals. The rate at these take place should be aligned to the anticipated rate of change.
  • Create standing orders : Sounds rather ominous, but are there some things that can be decide ahead of time. If orders do drop what happens? Do people change jobs, get furloughed or accept pay cuts? Do you have a secondary revenue stream, and when would you pivot towards it? Agreeing these things ahead of time will speed up reaction time and reduce friction.
  • Build a financial runway : How long could your organisation survive without any income? Typically organisations are run quite lean, this may need to change. If organisations can build six-plus month financial runway it will have space to find away forward in tough times. This may also be something that new recruits start looking for in organisations.
  • Invest in flexible people : We have been through a time of specialisation in the workforce. When there are changes, these people may not have the skills to fill new roles. Multi-skilling workers allow people to switch to new roles more easily. Again, investing in people will be attractive to new recruits as people themselves will see multi-skilling as important.
  • Invest in flexible tooling : As we are finding out now, jobs we thought of as needing to be performed in an office now need to be done from home. Machinery which produced one product are now being used to something else. It may be more expensive to purchase more general purpose equipment, but it provides options in the future.
  • Do you need to be as just-in-time? : Stock levels have been reduced in the global just-in-time economy, but now this makes supply lines very fragile. Organisations may need to rethink how lean they want to be, and consciously become less efficient’ to become more robust.
  • Run monkey tests’ : Monkey tests are used in software development to purposely break things in supposedly robust systems to see how they react. The name comes from the idea of a monkey interacting blindly with the system. By purposely delaying supplies, or withdrawing key team members, and just watching what happens can be very informative; you can identify weaknesses in the system, gets people used to things not going to plan, and can identify items for the standing orders’.
  • Build rich relationships :. Business has had a growing reputation of being emotionless and ruthless - if you can charge more you should, you should pressure smaller suppliers to accept worse payment terms, you should force down the price you pay suppliers. How is this working in the current environment? If I feel I have been mistreated by an organisation, am I going to go out of my way to help them when they are in trouble? Many companies, especially smaller ones, are calling in favours and exercising deep local relationships to keep supplies coming in or goods distributed. I would hope that once we get through the current extreme difficulties, that we will realise that being good neighbours not only makes us feel good, but it is actually good business.

Make no mistake, Covid-19 has altered business for the foreseeable future. It is up to us to decide how we react, and whether this is positive change in the longer term.

In the short term look after yourselves and each other.

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