Leading through Crisis: Guiding Adaptation

April 20, 2021

In the past month, the world has been turned on its head. What many saw as another problem “over there” has become a global pandemic. Every company and every industry has been affected.

While companies in some fields — such as virtual meetings, social media and door-to-door delivery — have grown and expanded, most other companies and sectors have been challenged by a rapid reduction in business.

We can take away many lessons from the ways different companies are handling this crisis. The successful companies have started by guiding their employees and other stakeholders through a process of adaptation. This means:

  1. Setting a new course: Leaders must set a new strategic direction and communicate that new direction to employees and all stakeholders. A strategic direction should be more of a guiding star than a railroad track. Because the pandemic is rapidly changing, how you move in this direction must remain flexible. You must keep open options that will allow you to go over, under, around or through any of the many obstacles that may present themselves.
  2. Top-down communication: Communication must come with one unified voice from the top of the organization. Many people may share the responsibility of communication with various audiences or stakeholders, but the message must be clear and unified.
  3. Avoid getting stuck: I have seen many leaders during this crisis getting stuck in states of shock, denial or anger. Shock leaves leaders in disbelief that this pandemic is actually happening. They freeze and wait for the event to pass. Leaders in denial avoid the data. Denial leaves leaders and companies vulnerable to collapse because they are not seeing the world accurately. Angry leaders get stuck in blame. They are looking to hold someone or something (China, the government, a political party) responsible rather than taking action.

To get unstuck, we must learn reframing. Our brain is programmed to solve problems.  Reframing asks our mind to focus on a problem it can solve rather than a problem that is unsolvable or unknowable.

Reframe the Big Questions

Over the past two weeks, I’ve heard these three questions the most:

  1. Am I going to survive this crisis? Our brain likes to organize and think in steps. But this question does not guide us toward particular steps. So here’s how we could reframe this question: What steps would get us ready for the recovery after the crisis?
  2. How many people will I have to cut? This question assumes that people will have to be cut in order to make it through the crisis. It is a common misconception. The reframe: What do we have to do differently to keep our people?
  3. How long will this last? We can’t know the answer to this question. We must treat the current context as the “new normal.” Your business model worked in the old normal. But now you need to adapt and find a new model for the new normal. The reframed question: What must we do differently to thrive in this new context?

Sixty-six million years ago, a meteor strike made dinosaurs extinct. Most of them, that is. Birds, lizards and frogs are all forms of dinosaurs that existed back then. The ones we have with us today are the ones that could adapt to the changing environment.

This global pandemic is a business extinction event. It is a change in global business context.  Businesses that successfully adapt by using the strategies here will survive the pandemic and thrive during the recovery. Those that do not adapt will go the way of the T. rex.

I’d love to hear your questions and comments.  If you would like to discuss this further, just drop me a note.

Keep cultivating your culture!

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