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7 Lessons from Crisis Management

(This article was originally published on Medium in April 2020)

In the Cynefin model, when you find yourself in disorder or chaos, the goal is to move out of that space as quickly as possible. Biasing towards movement in a direction, any direction, allows you to start learning more about the situation. It can even help reduce possible damage from as yet unknown sources. To do this involves some degree of instinct, swift action, and knowledge gathering via triage. And while it’s entirely likely to move from chaos or disorder into a state that may still be radically complicated in ways you’ve never experienced before, there is the advantage of just enough space to be able to detect discernible patterns. You can then begin to rapidly experiment and evaluate and forge a clearer path forward.

Crisis Management

This is where we found ourselves in early March of 2020. COVID-19 had already swept through Wuhan, China and was starting to spread across Italy and Iran. I was in Dublin at the tail end of a business trip, navigating through crowded streets around Italian tourists and other travelers from around the world. I took a jewelry making class in a cramped basement with a dozen other people where I chatted with a young woman from Australia just embarking on a long-planned trip around the world. Her next stop was Italy. Bars were still brimming with people, sharing beers and food and close personal space. On my last night in town, I watched as the band members crowd surfed during a sold out show at a packed music venue, surprisingly attended by folks of all ages, bodies pressed against bodies. At the airport, I passed through a couple of checkpoints where my passport was searched for signs of travel to China or Italy. But no one acknowledged or addressed the traveller in the boarding line behind me who was coughing, sneezing, and clearly showing signs of illness. And when we finally landed at Newark, I and the other passengers on that flight walked right off the plane and out into the open air, towards any number of human interactions across the US. This is the world we used to know, where those commonplace activities wouldn’t generate excess anxiety. But that is no longer the world we are living in.

At first, the new world was full of disorder. Things were moving very fast and dangers that had seemed far away were now closer to home. Our crisis management team convened and we began to work together to move forward out of chaos. We dusted off and drew up business continuity plans. We used probability theory and made the prescient decision to move to a remote working model, long before other companies followed suit. We reacted and pivoted and debated and observed and learned and decided and eventually we landed in a very complex, uncharted situation of early social distancing, where at least the immediate threat of existential harm was reduced. From there, we built frameworks about how to make decisions and what to do next, how to care for our employees, our customers, and our communities. And those frameworks continued to evolve based on new data we were learning from around the world every day, so we incorporated fast feedback cycles and worked around the clock to adapt.

In the midst of all this ambiguity, we were able to find pockets of enough familiarity to begin to map out playbooks. We also got creative, breaking out of our specialized swim lanes and introducing fresh perspectives into each other’s problem spaces. Taking a cross functional approach allowed us to form emergent practices addressing the complexity that was less familiar, creating new ways of working that better served us in this wild, new frontier. How should managers act to best support their teams? What sort of work from home setups would we support for people? What messages were we sending to customers? What upstream dependencies did we have and how could we mitigate any interruptions to those?

Where we could, we broke large, complex problems down into smaller, complicated problems and applied general best practices to them. We spun up specialized working groups to dig deeper into specific areas. We communicated with employees, sharing both when we knew or didn’t know what our next steps would be. We acted with empathy and accountability. We supported each other when it became overwhelming. We even found moments to laugh at the absurdity of everything. And we learned.

“In the midst of every crisis lies great opportunity.” -Albert Einstein

Lesson 1: Teamwork

Our crisis management team formed and normed quickly. We had to; it was possible that everything was at stake. Many of us had sat in meetings together, but few of us had worked together. We came from different teams, different business units, different backgrounds, and different perspectives, and we brought zero ego and total commitment. We embraced the highest level of honesty and candor with each other, even around topics that ordinarily might touch on sensitive identity issues (group membership, roles and responsibilities, etc).

This also meant that when one member struggled, there was redundancy to reinforce and strengthen the whole. When one person had to step away (physically or emotionally), everyone else stepped forward to fill that space. Having a team with diversity of perspective and the ability to challenge each other were the catalysts that dismantled any possible analysis paralysis, regardless of the gravity of the decisions that needed to be made. When a leadership team can work like this, it is a powerful force creating clarity of vision and urgency of direction during chaos. It is what moves a large ship in a different direction quickly instead of morbidly, glacially slow.

Lesson 2: Strong opinions loosely held

We needed to make decisions with incomplete information. To do that sometimes requires following your intuition and making a hypothesis. In those moments, you’re as likely to be wrong as you are to be right, but that’s ok. We made sure to connect and align with our teams and to tie our decisions to our principles and the company’s core values. We also surrounded ourselves with people who would disagree and challenge us in order to pressure test our hypotheses. We actively gathered information to prove ourselves wrong and when we found it, we changed our hypothesis. We let go of sunk cost, over-optimism, and confirmation biases and pivoted and pivoted again until we got on the right path. We did this in the early chaos when deciding whether to close one office, two offices, or all offices and we continue to do it as we forge ahead through the complexity of supporting our customers in uncertain times.

Lesson 3: Fast 360 feedback

In engineering, we practice lean principles and agile methodologies. To solve complex problems, we consider a range of options and work incrementally towards an end result, gathering feedback along the way. This allows us to pivot towards solutions that better serve the needs of our customers. The same practice applies in crisis management and leadership in general. To pressure test our hypotheses from lesson two, we gathered 360 feedback and incorporated that into our decision making. We sourced input from all levels, in various channels, and across all workstreams. This also gave everyone a voice and allowed people a sense of control amid the uncertainty.

Lesson 4: People over economics

Putting the welfare and health of employees and their families first is crucial. In a crisis, people are frightened and it is important to reassure them that they are supported. Regardless of how dedicated, passionate, and capable our employees are, they can’t help anyone if they’re struggling with existential dread in the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy. In a crisis, cost comes second to safety, so once that was established by closing our offices and implementing a remote wfh policy, we focused on ‘the vital few” projects and programs to invest in. Our employees, partners, and community members’ health and welfare are sustainable long-term investments, so we avoided getting caught up in trying to manage the short-term productivity capacity of each individual during and through this crisis.

In the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, they found that trust is based on three things: competence (doing things well), ethics (living within a value system), and voice (giving people a chance to speak). By focusing on people in a competent, ethical way and listening to them (lesson 3: feedback), we found an opportunity to improve trust, teamwork, and resilience. The decisions we made to allow everyone to work from home, advising social distancing, providing information on the virus, establishing norms around wfh parenting, and more all contributed to helping our employees feel safe, protected and heard. This also allowed people to focus on higher order critical thinking and problem solving, utilizing their skills to analyze, evaluate and synthesize the critical problems we were now facing.

Lesson 5: The importance of consistent, frequent, authentic communication that sets a tone

Anxiety, fear, and hopelessness are contagious, so it’s important for leaders to set a balanced and authentic tone of realistic optimism. Communication isn’t just a top down process, either. By empowering our managers with informed talking points and providing avenues for every person in the company to have a voice, we created a communication mesh that was stronger than any top down channel alone. We made sure to communicate early, often, and consistently even if we didn’t have all the information or nothing had changed. By recognizing the emotions people are dealing with and making it safe to express feelings, we created a safe space for everyone to show up. We tried to be honest without scaring people and acknowledge what was known as well as what was still unknown. By being emotionally intelligent and self aware, our leaders leaned into being curious rather than being reactive and created a space to show up as our best selves.

Lesson 6: Frameworks

Most of the things I’ve mentioned so far are easier if you have a toolbox of frameworks ready to choose from. Some of these include cynefin models; probability decision making; deductive, inductive, or abductive reasoning; decision trees; root cause analysis (five whys); systems based approaches and dynamic conceptual models. There are many more available out there and they’re super handy in a pinch to help guide you through complexity.

Additionally, in chaos it helps sometimes to burn down your assumptions and think creatively outside of what you thought you knew about the world. There is opportunity to leapfrog exponentially ahead of where you otherwise may have been. One of the fundamental laws of physics states that every action has an equal, opposite reaction, so each time an object exerts force on another, there is an equal and opposite force exerted by the second object on the first. The massive debilitating force being exerted on us by this chaos gave us an opportunity to exert a productive countering force just as powerful. Having familiar frameworks that let you navigate through uncertainty and intentionally direct your reactions is a competitive advantage.

A long road uphill in dark and murky conditions, with the words, "The debilitating force exerted by chaos gave us an opportunity to exert a productive countering force just as powerful."

Lesson 7: Self-care, boundaries, and the eternal struggle for balance

As leaders, it’s imperative that we put on our own oxygen masks in order to help others. This means being aware of our own boundaries and capabilities. To lead, you’ll need to think clearly, make key decisions, and communicate effectively, so it’s important to take breaks for sleeping, eating, connecting with others, and allowing yourself to recharge. Ask for support from a mental health professional or a coach to address the mental and emotional burden you’re carrying. Crisis can be a marathon, not a sprint, so being able to show up consistently over time is critical and self-care is a key element to achieve that.

Through this experience, we became very familiar with our own personal boundaries; that line that separates “this is fine” from “I’m not ok”. Our responsibilities meant we were staring directly into the belly of the beast, diving deep into the details, separating truth from misinformation, scouring the news 24/7 for data and patterns to help guide decision making. We processed all of this as quickly as we could in order to manage the hard decisions head-on and boldly. And this meant our contexts, our perspectives were sometimes weeks ahead of the people around us, our co-workers, our families. We were thinking through chess moves ten steps in the future, identifying possible dark outcomes, and betting on the ways we could be as proactive as possible. This reality was often difficult at best and impossible at worst to reconcile with our families and friends. Our intensity of emotion and demands for those we cared about to quarantine and prepare felt exaggerated and inappropriate to people still living in a world that, for the most part, hadn’t caught up to the realization of what was coming.

Finding a way to balance these worlds was an impossible task, but one we struggled through nonetheless. In times of great change, there is a distillation that occurs, a clarifying light that illuminates what is actually important in your life, who shows up with you, and where you are most needed. Don’t shy away from this. Remember, resilience is the strength that allows you to embrace transformation.

“My barn having burned down, I can now see the moon.” -Mizuta Masahide


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