For leaders – and, let’s face it, for everyone else – the last few months have been nothing short of mind-bending. Most of us, in fact, are not even sure how to describe this period.
The word “crisis” has been on everyone’s lips for quite a while now, and since that’s been one of the more common descriptions of the pandemic-driven first half of the eventful year of 2020, it’s worth taking a moment to examine this term’s history. Crisis comes from the Greek root krinein, meaning “to decide.” In the Middle Ages, the word crisis came to be used to describe the turning point of a serious disease – the point at which the patient either recovered or didn’t. This led to the general sense of crisis as “the decisive point in a dangerous event,” which dates from the early 17th century.
I mention all this because the original sense of the word crisis points both to a decisive, potentially hazardous moment … and, crucially, to the decisions we make as leaders. I believe that, just as a physician has a moral duty not to make a patient’s condition worse in making decisions that connect to treatment, we as leaders have a moral duty not to overcorrect when it comes to making decisions in response to a crisis.
All of us face new and uncharted territory in the second half of 2020. The big question, as I see it, is: how do we as leaders make sure that we don't overcorrect, overreact, and/or over-engineer in response to the new reality, making a profoundly challenging and confusing situation even worse? Here are three best practices we see market leaders following.
1. Look closely at the market space. The voice of the customer has never been more important than it is right now. What are your customers doing? How are your customers interacting with you? You should have at least monthly meetings talking to your best customers about what the current state of affairs is and what they see as the new future. What are they gearing up for? What are they setting as strategic priorities? (Hint: It’s probably not what you thought it was in January or February.) How do you fit into the picture? Stay as close to your customer as you possibly can. You don't want to be on the receiving end of a decision that was made a month ago. And if you have a big new initiative you’re excited about pursuing, share it with your best customers first. Get their feedback before you commit to it.
2. Ask yourself “what if.” Create a list of “what if” questions that can help you and your team to create contingency plans for dealing with various scenarios you may face over the next three to six months. Get your people together – virtually if necessary – and do some brainstorming around each “what if” situation. The more people you can involve in this discussion, the better. Ideally, you want engagement and input from all of your employees. The idea is to generate multiple perspectives on how they're interacting with each other and with their customers, and what the best responses to potential changes on the horizon would be. These brainstorming sessions are great team-building events, and they can help you to leverage the rising spirit of collaboration across teams and working groups that has emerged one of the silver linings of this period. Many of our clients report that collaboration across departments has been higher over the past three months than it has been for them in the past three years.
3. Look at your business plan one month at a time. One of the cardinal leadership sins of the era in which we now live is marching in lockstep behind a plan that is outdated. Create different contingency plans based on what you believe is likely (or possible), and then review those plans every thirty days. I have three separate contingency plans reflecting what I believe could happen over the next 12 months. I review those contingency plans, and all the associated decisions that connect to it, at thirty-day intervals. Every thirty days, I examine plans and ask myself: is it time to pivot, or is it not? For instance: Do you really need to rent office space, or should you transition to a virtual working model? Who knows at this point? Take it thirty days at a time. Try it with a segment of your organization, and see what happens. It may be a good decision today, but it may not be a good decision 90 days from now. This approach allows you to crawl-walk-run, as opposed to simply running at full speed in a direction that may or may not be good for your business.
The emphasis in all three of these ideas is on flexibility. Nobody can tell you with certainty what the world will look like even one month from now. Hopefully, these three tips will help you to plan and execute flexibly as you start to confirm the details of the emerging, rapidly changing reality your business will be facing in the weeks and months ahead. The one thing that you don't want to do is bet all your chips on a certain outcome, and perhaps even change your business model, only to find out that the market doesn’t support it. Because what's going on in the environment is out of your control, you will want to retain as much control as possible over the processes, the behaviors, and the strategic direction of your organization.