A simple way to ensure readiness for the unknown.
“A lot of fear was created, but nobody was ready to withdraw from the fear.” Peter Schröcksnadel — President, Austrian Skiing Association, June 2020
Is the crisis about to actually be over?
The sad truth is we might never really know because the likelihood of a key stakeholder to say these exact words is very slim. Crises are increasingly being proclaimed with great speed. This is for different reasons ranging from political strategy and urgency to acknowledgement and a lack of alternatives to name a few. However, their end is hardly ever clearly and officially announced.
So when do we know when we can go back to normal?
The bad news is we won’t ever really, unless we hear an official confirmation this is the case. The good news, however, is that to have this confirmation might be less relevant than we think as either way we are not going back to what we used to call normal. The coming weeks, months and possibly years are yet to be shaped and it has become clear from how companies adjusted to the new circumstances that this will continue to be a case of learning as we go.
How to deal with the ‘new normal’ then?
This is the hot topic of the moment and a current focus of much debate. Including what skills will be needed and how we can learn from the crisis. There might or might not be answers to these questions at this stage and to some degree this will also depend on the status of the person asking the question and how they perceive the crisis.
The situation in the coming weeks and months will see some second waves and some further changes to the way we work, live and plan. Arguably, what lies ahead has the same characteristics of a crisis: uncertainty, complexity, the unknown, a sense of urgency, and most of all decisions that need to be taken without the ability to be sure of their actual outcome.
During my 15 years of working in crisis management and preparedness globally, I repeatedly witnessed how critical situations and fully-fledged crises bring out the best and the worst in teams and organisations. With our basic drive to survive, we naturally use crisis to adapt. We invent, re-invent, we play according to new rules and those who can do so fast have a high chance of coming out of the situation stronger, sharper, and at times even in a better position than when they went in. But what makes this possible?
From my personal experience and years of advising different stakeholders before, during and post crises, I believe there are four enablers that help leaders, teams and organisations do so:
Have a realistic understanding of the context and your crisis.
We are not yet post Covid-19, and it will likely take a while longer before we can safely shift the narrative to a world where we might not have to worry about Corona virus anymore.
Whether it is Covid-19 or another crisis, it is crucial to have clarity on the actual challenge ahead. As harsh as it might sound, is the spreading of the virus still your problem, if it ever was, or are there other things that need your attention in order to readjust, move forward or avoid the crisis from becoming even more serious for you and your team?
Clarity is a key enabling factor to handle any crisis. I work with and advise leaders regularly to reflect over the situation and eliminate critical circumstances that are not theirs to worry about. Find clarity on what is the actual challenge and situation and what this means for you and you are better placed to face and overcome it.
Prior to heading to Afghanistan many years ago, where I worked with the conflict and crisis for almost 3 years, I was unable to imagine how people could live under the circumstances. How their homes and everyday lives looked between all the bombs and fighting. Naively I thought that they primarily lived in bunkers with little outside life.
In disbelief upon landing I actually saw the complete opposite. People adjusted to the situation as challenging as it was and continues to be and they made the best they could of it. How? I came to learn the simple secret is to create opportunities through shifting focus from what you cannot influence to what you can influence.
Crises lead people, who by default make-up teams, leaders and organisations, to reinvent themselves and live with the restrictions and altered circumstances. A key to doing so is to shift focus from the things that you cannot impact whilst following their development but placing your attention to those that are within your scope of influence and reach. This allows you to create a more open mindset for opportunities rather than to externally attribute reasons why things are so difficult and what should be different.
In workshops and trainings, one of my favourite approaches is to change the rules and catch participants off guard because it creates honest reactions. Initially, there is usually a smile, followed by resistance and then the team adjusts and finds solutions because they understood that the rules have changed. A crisis situation is when the rules have change and in order to get out of it and manage it effectively it is key to accept this is the case and focus on how to play with the new rules.
Shifting your focus from the context enables you to identify opportunities and creative solutions for the way forward.
Acknowledge and celebrate your successful adaptation and maintain readiness for future changes. Crises are characterized by the complexity and interconnectedness of different stakeholders in a system. The many decisions that are taken during critical situations affect the context, thus have consequences on the other elements and stakeholders in the system.
This requires regular adaptation and simultaneous flexibility of strategy, decision-making and mindset. Solutions that were previously identified might not be relevant anymore or might have unforeseen consequences. This requires regular reflections.
During the “Corona Crisis” many companies only actually experienced a form of crisis once governments put restrictions in place. While they initially prepared to avoid the spreading of the virus, from one day to the next they then had to completely change their way of working, lost assignments and clients, and faced an uncertain future. We regularly push clients to test their own adaptability and eliminate processes, elements and structures that are hindrances.
Research* shows that confidence is an essential trait of leaders and people in power. A crisis often puts extra burden to leadership and management and requires them to take actions. In order to give direction and gain trust, it is essential that these decisions are taken and communicated with confidence, and more precisely honest confidence.
Leaders, teams and organisations can nurture a culture of confidence, and it is essential that stakeholders have confidence in themselves, the way they handle the crisis and the decisions that they take. This does not mean that all the decisions will in retrospect be the best ones that could have been taken, however, ideally a leader is still convinced afterwards that they would take the same decision again in the exact same situation because they were confident in their decision-making then and are still confident in it now.
Confidence furthermore is a strong enabler of trust, support and ability to give direction. Combined with an honest way of strategic communication, it is highly essential to managing any crisis. Confidence, however, must not be portrayed to facilitate trust and mislead the audience into thinking things are under control. This is a fine line, which regularly needs to be reflected upon to not fall into the trap of the illusion of confidence. Also here it is crucial for leaders not to forget their teams.
Post Covid-19 will bring many unknowns and ways where we will need to think completely innovatively and anew. Much of the learning already happened during the past months because we adapted, we adjusted, and we changed in order to play according to the new rules. With clarity on what the crisis actually is, the focus can easily be shifted to opportunities, which will allow for confident adaptability and present a strong foundation for dealing with further uncertainty, of which we will doubtlessly face much in the coming weeks and months.
Reference*: Chabris, C., & Simons, D. (2010). The invisible gorilla: And other ways our intuitions deceive us. Crown Publishers/Random House.