As the COVID-19 crisis continues to unfold and the long-term ramifications of the crisis remain unclear, conducting post mortems and defining lessons learned can seem premature. At the same time, one important lesson is all too clear: COVID-19 took the world by surprise, and the next crisis, however it unfolds, will likely be just as surprising.
In other words, while predicting the next crisis with certainty may be impossible, the corporate world must assume that disruption — whatever its form — is inevitable.
Positioning your organization for long-term success requires thinking creatively about what the future might hold beyond the current crisis, even while we are still in the middle of it.
As David Shore, instructor at Harvard Extension School and Harvard DCE’s Professional & Executive Development, noted in his article in the Journal of Health Communication, “the day to plan for a crisis is not the day of the crisis.”
The key for today’s leaders, therefore, is to identify broad skills that facilitate corporate success in today’s disruption, and to cultivate and harness those skills for future success in the next crisis, no matter how unexpected or surprising.
Here are six critical skills strong and resilient leaders need in order to ensure that their organization survives — and thrives — during the next disruption.
In order to make mission-critical decisions in a crisis, leaders need access to accurate, up-to-date information. And perhaps more importantly, this information must be updated and revised as often as possible to ensure that it is relevant and current, as the crisis evolves quickly and constantly.
Yet once a crisis has begun to unfold, getting access to information will be challenging unless mechanisms for intelligence gathering have been set up in advance.
Therefore, successful leaders must actively cultivate sources of information throughout their organization before a crisis hits. These sources must be experienced and trusted, and represent a wide range of organizational perspectives.
Ideally, the intel you collect through this process will incorporate multiple viewpoints, translate into actionable data, and avoid—as much as possible — rumor and misinformation.
A hallmark of the COVID-19 crisis has been the need to operate with some degree of normalcy in times of extreme volatility and unusual levels of uncertainty. Employees are concerned not only about job security, they are also concerned about their personal safety and health of their family and loved ones.
Functioning successfully under these conditions becomes significantly easier if leadership clearly defines its core values and mission, and builds a foundation of trust with employees.
As noted in Forbes:
Holding true to core values and priorities during a crisis, when built on mutual feelings of trust, will thus empower your team to work at their full potential during times of volatility and uncertainty.
Communicating Clearly and Effectively
Successfully leading through a crisis requires clear, honest, and effective communication. All stakeholders—from employees, to customers, to shareholders — must understand how the organization plans to navigate the crisis.
The more leaders can communicate, the more teams will understand how to implement critical strategies, the more they will trust leadership to listen to their concerns and suggestions, and the more the organization will be able to move forward successfully.
Of course not all decisions can or should be made public. But transparency and honesty, as much as possible, will help go a long way toward helping both your employees and your customers feel confident during times of disruption.
And a necessary part of clear and effective communication includes acknowledging both unknowns and missteps. Taking ownership of mistakes will further establish feelings of trust and confidence, which are critical to mission success.
Nimble leadership, a hallmark of a resilient organization prepared to successfully weather a disruption, requires decisive and rapid decision-making. HBR’s recent crisis leadership study notes, “The best leaders quickly process available information, rapidly determine what matters most, and make decisions with conviction.”
The COVID-19 crisis has shown that companies currently weathering the crisis most successfully had either identified crisis management teams in advance, or were able to build such teams almost overnight.
Ideally, these crisis teams should be cross-functional, well-informed, and empowered to take the tactical steps needed to take on challenges as they arise.
Moreover, in order to avoid analysis paralysis and enable nimble decision making during a crisis, organizations must cultivate leadership that is able to:
- Delegate. Leaders must identify and empower key employees and management/crisis teams to make and implement decisions. Delegating to crisis teams, moreover, enables senior leadership to focus on long-term, transformational strategy.
- Be adaptive. Crises are rarely static. As new information emerges and the tactical situation changes, it’s critical to be ready to change course quickly as needed to adapt.
- Accept mistakes. As decisions are made quickly and the situation changes even more rapidly, missteps and mistakes will happen. Avoid the temptation to punish mistakes or attempt to compensate by making reactive management changes. Instead, acknowledge mistakes openly, be prepared to alter course quickly, and help all members of the team learn from those mistakes.
Evaluating What Works (And What Doesn’t)
Post-mortems are an important element of strategic planning. Closely examining what didn’t work in the last crisis can enable significantly better crisis management in the next crisis.
Experts including David Shore warn against waiting until a crisis is over to begin post-mortem exercises, to avoid what Shore refers to as “recency bias.” As his research shows, “78 percent of lessons learned were related to the last 5.5 weeks of the typical 9-month project life cycle.”
Instead, resilient organizations must engage in frequent re-assessments throughout a crisis, taking a hard look at what steps are working, and which ones aren’t. The goal is not only to readjust a short-term strategy as the current crisis moves from one phase to the next.
These frequent re-assessments and post-mortems must also be used to examine how current crisis management strategies may, or may not, be appropriate in future disruptions.
Conducting Scenario Planning
Creative thinking will be required by any organization looking to survive — and thrive — during the next disruption, whatever it might look like.
As Shore points out, organizations should not be content to simply apply lessons learned from the COVID-19 to the next pandemic. After all, if we are sure of anything, it will be that the next disruption will look entirely different.
Instead, successful strategic planning should incorporate creative, thought-provoking scenario planning. According to Shore, well-designed scenario planning should:
As Shore and other strategic planning experts note, the value of imagining different scenarios and their impact on a long-term strategic plan is in the process, not the details.
In other words, successfully planning for the next disruption is not about predicting exactly what that disruption will look like.
Rather, it’s about identifying organizational strengths and weaknesses and cultivating a leadership structure that can think creatively about a variety of contingency plans. Scenario planning enables you to determine who will be ready to implement the appropriate contingency when appropriate, and who can adapt quickly to changing circumstances.
Yet while we may not be able to predict what the next disruption will look like, it is possible to be prepared for that crisis, however it unfolds. Position your company for success by cultivating nimble, flexible leaders with the skills to build a resilient organization.