What should we do when every decision is a tough decision?

What should we do when every decision is a tough decision?

And every day feels the same?

When I sat down to chat with renowned transformation strategist, Ron Gauci, we were discussing the mindset leaders need to cultivate in order to turn crisis-imposed business disruption into crisis-led business transformation. Ron’s practical and experienced-based tips seem to have struck a chord with the LinkedIn family and so this insights paper seeks to break down the information into actionable steps to take when every decision feels difficult.

  1. Turn data into positive action.
  2. Listen with empathy. Communicate with fact.
  3. Formulate a strategy and communicate your plan.

Turn data into positive action.

“Never waste a crisis” says Ron, emphasising that we have one chance to earn and secure the trust of our people. And one chance to channel uncertainty away from panic and into opportunity. Leaders will be revealed in moments of stress and uncertainty, and for those heading up organisations, a situation of stress cannot mean being stressed. “We need to be making our best decisions under stress.”

This sounds logical in practice, however for many leaders around the world right now, every decision is a tough decision and every day is more of the same. The extended timeframe of the COVID-19 health pandemic and subsequent vacuum of economic progress means that war-time resilience is being called for. The only way we will collectively navigate through this is to turn data into positive action.

When we enter a crisis, it is critical to clear our minds of assumptions and understand the extent of the problem. Almost immediately, we embark on an exhaustive learning process taking in constantly updated information from multiple conflicting sources. On a grand scale, the global population has been called on to lead in this way. Collectively, we have taken a disease predicted by epidemiologists to be capable of a 10% (or higher) death toll, down to 6% (in the US) and well below that in other countries like Australia and New Zealand. Data has been crucial at every point of these public responses- from tracking infection rates to monitoring ICU admissions, undertaking predictive modelling of different interventions (and then testing against hard data post-implementation) and contact tracing those with positive covid diagnoses to contain the spread. When humans are given the data, we naturally draw insight. As leaders, we must listen with empathy but communicate with fact. This balances out the counterintuitive reality that information (even with negative implications) makes us feel calmer. Leaders have a responsibility to remove themselves from emotion and panic when it comes to decision-making.

No alt text provided for this image

Listen with empathy.

Communicate with fact.

What happens when leaders allow emotion to fuse with information in their messaging? We do not need to look far to witness examples of how contradictory messaging by leaders affects the population. Whether we look at the closing (and reopening) of schools across Australia, the guidance about whether or not face masks were useful by WHO or the “Liberate our states” phenomenon in America, a leader who separates data from action strikes the heart of a constituent at their most vulnerable.

In crisis, empathy will prove a critical competitive advantage for any leader. Authenticity is important at all times but in situations of heightened sensitivity, there’s a premium on it. According to studies carried out by Development Dimensions International (DDI), empathy is the biggest single leadership skill needed to drive loyalty, engagement and innovation. Dianne Crampton at Gonzaga University found that “Empathy is a universal team value that promotes high commitment and cooperation” (Fast Company, 2018). Empathy from leaders requires perspective. When every day feels like the next, how are we finding time to recharge and separate emotion from fact?

Ron argues that COVID-19 has taken away leaders’ natural calibration time. While plane travel or time commuting may have served as an opportunity to synthesise multiple data points and frequently changing data sets, today we need to carve out “big picture” time with a lighter footprint. For example, taking a walk without your device in tow, or listening to music that provides a sense of space. Working from home, blurred lines and back-to-back zoom schedules will lead to information overload. “Leadership is a lonely role,” says Ron. We each need to rely on our personal cabinet – a circle of experts who bring diverse perspectives – and trust our own judgment. The critical questions to ask ourselves? “What do I know in my gut? What is the current data telling me? How can I turn this into a positive action?”

No alt text provided for this image

Formulate a strategy.

Articulate your plan.

Nothing grows while you’re choking it”. Ron acknowledges the easiest thing to do in crisis is to cut costs. However, the need for transformation to a new way of working was a pre-existing condition for many organisations before COVID-19 arrived on the scene. Macro timeframes must be developed in? the context of today’s decisions. How can we as leaders think simultaneously through putting out short-term fires while fanning long-term sparks?

Action or reaction? Tracking a path forward in a changing landscape can seem like a balance between planning for the worst and hoping for the best. This is why Ron advocates for the overlaying of multiple decision-making frameworks to pick and choose strategies based on emergent conditions.

Though many of these will be familiar to you, here are a few decision-making frameworks that could help:

No alt text provided for this image
30/60/90-day time horizons

The well-used 30/60/90-day plan is a simple and useful tool for formulating strategy from a growth mindset, gaining stakeholder buy-in and articulating forward planning to the team. The use of a familiar format means that while the immediate 30 days gives people a level of security, the 60-day horizons allow for alterations as emergent conditions arise, and the 90-day reference point retains a sense of purpose and future vision, needing to keep momentum. Strategist Mark Johnson describes the importance of ‘leading from the future’ in his book ‘How to Turn Visionary Thinking into Breakthrough Growth’ stating, ‘Future-back is both a process and a way of thinking that involves starting with a vision of a future state and working your way backwards to reverse engineer your path to it.’ (Read more)

No alt text provided for this image
SWOT analysis

Often used as a constant check-in along the way rather than a mechanism on its own, the Strengths, Weakness, Opportunity and Threat framework can be a good exercise to get us thinking outside the box and joining the dots. Where are the new revenue opportunities? How is our business able to exist virtually? Encouraging our teams to think of threats and opportunities hand in hand when coming up with new solutions is a great way to foster innovation as a knee-jerk response in times of crisis. (Read more)

No alt text provided for this image
Scenario planning

As we found talking to ADF veteran, Emma Grigson, scenario planning will play into agile strategy formulation across financial management, product design, workforce mapping and supply chain innovation. The definition of scenario planning is identifying a specific set of uncertainties, different “realities” of what might happen in the future of your business” (Mariton, March 2020). Each scenario should contain just enough detail to assess the likely success or failure of the strategic option. Scenarios may be built around one single question or sets of variables. These different realities could probe economic outcomes, product demand, supply chain resilience, competition manoeuvres, technology adoption, geopolitical instability, etc. Scenario planning reiterates that we will come through this uncertainty, but focusses energy on how we emerge when all is said and done. (Read more)

No alt text provided for this image
Issues-based ethical decision-making

Ethical decision-making frameworks are useful in shifting our focus to the macro effect of our day-to-day decisions. Perhaps we need to fundamentally shift how we think of growth for example? An ethical dilemma is an instance where opposing personal and professional values are perfectly balanced. The current crisis is playing out between the moral imperative of health vs economy. Hopefully, as we turn our minds to designing a new normal, we will pause to weigh up economy vs climate in a more concerted way. When every decision is a tough decision, an ethical approach acknowledges that we cannot control perfect outcomes however we can control accountability in trying to achieve them. (Read more)

No alt text provided for this image
Thinking fast and slow

Based on the work of Daniel Kahneman, the process of thinking fast/thinking slow seeks to elucidate our two-systems approach to decision-making. One method occurs at a more intuitive level, while the other requires greater critical thinking at a statistical level – automatic and controlled decision-making if you like. Which process do you find yourself using? The critical point is awareness. When decision-making under pressure, it can be tempting to perpetuate our own unconscious biases. However, the situation distinctly calls for a new interpretation of data. (Read more)

Ron’s point in the overlaying of multiple decision-making models in order to arrive at a strategy and communicable plan, I believe, is three-fold. Multiple modelling moves us away from our comfort zone and into the courage zone; the place where leaders do their best work. The layered effect neutralises incorrect or irrelevant data points while reinforcing those that consistently underpin the situation. And finally, we are able to give a firm basis to our stakeholders for believing in our plan. As Ron says, “people trust me because a) they see I have a plan, b) the plan sounds reasonable, and c) they know I’ve navigated these situations before and feel confident in my ability to see it through”.

No alt text provided for this image

The most important sustainable value is you.

Finally, as leaders who are required to sort emotion from fact, data from diatribe and intuition from statistical analysis, what new habits are we building for ourselves during COVID-19? As many of us find a new rhythm juggling personal relationships with conference calls, home-schooling schedules with additional crisis response activities and team wellbeing with our own physical and mental relief, how are we coping?

The advice from experts is to retain as much routine and structure as possible. However, I wonder if this approach in itself misses the opportunity to innovate? How many of us have felt for a long time that we are working to someone else’s schedule? Owned by necessity rather than optimal working rhythms. I would encourage us all to take this opportunity to reimagine our ways of working. Can we carve out some hours to do the deep concentration work? Can we take the opportunity of working from home to cultivate a rhythm of frequent micro-meditations? Are we leveraging the proximity to kitchens, closets and couches to be more attentive to our basic needs throughout the busy working day? Can we steal more precious moments with loved ones than the rhythm of our usual 9-5 (or longer!) allowed us?

When every day feels the same, and the economic outlook may require sustained pressure, how do we sustain ourselves?

“Plans stop working the moment the first bullet is fired.”

“Plans stop working the moment the first bullet is fired.”

Ten critical leadership steps for navigating COVID19 – In conversation with veteran Emma Grigson.

Within four short weeks, leaders have found themselves catapulted into three lines of fire:

  1. DISORDER Confronting their own and their organisation’s preparedness to deal with a crisis event
  2. REORDER – Enacting business continuity plans, protecting their people and pivoting strategic direction of their value proposition
  3. NEW [WORLD] ORDER – Attempting to map the imminent restructuring of the global economic order

Last week Emma Grigson and I had a robust conversation about crisis leadership skills. Our interview addressed resounding requests from the LinkedIn family for skills and steps to navigate COVID-19. As an ADF veteran of 15 years, Former Health Operations Executive trained in strategic leadership and with experience in disease management in Washington D.C., Emma provided pragmatic advice on how leaders might tackle the challenge we are facing today, as well as plan for those we will inevitably face tomorrow. I asked her “why the ideas of preparedness and planning seem at odds with the disruption and chaos brought on by crisis”. She proceeded to give a compelling view of planned disruption and disrupted plans.

Let’s break it down…

No alt text provided for this image

Not only is COVID-19 a health pandemic, it’s also a test of leadership skills. As the extent of the economic and social impact continues to evolve, leaders, organisations, and governments are revealed in various states of preparedness, credibility, and adaptability. When contingency planning has not been factored into the fibre of an organisation, leaders and companies miss critical opportunities for honest communication and decisive action in the heat of a crisis.

In our chat, Emma outlined some critical steps that can be embedded into teams right from the planning stage:

1.     Planning (to have no plan)

Whether you call it red teaming, wargaming or stress-testing, planning to have no plan should be part of every organisation’s source code. Why? Because this gives businesses a chance to hack their own strategy before an irretrievable amount of money, time or material resources have been invested.

Skill: Red teaming is a relatively simple process of fast iteration of scenario testing and has additional benefits. The process of making a plan and encouraging counterfactual arguments reveals not only weakness but new opportunities for innovation and growth. The practice also reinforces open communication, two-way respect and increases the responsibility the group feels for owning successful outcomes in the face of uncertainty.

2.     Preparation (rehearsing innovation as an auto-response)

Skill: Rapid-fire role-playing should be dynamic and involve the broader leadership team, serving as robust preparation to embed a level of trust which will prove critical in tough times. When team members are clear on their role, relationships and empowered with prior knowledge, they are able to react without a plan. Leaders need to build core self-checks into the team long before a crisis arrives. For example, improvised critical thinking can be tested for alignment to the company value system, so kneejerk responses are on track to achieve an organisation’s underlying purpose or end goal. When speed of response is critical, it’s this prior understanding and muscle memory that defines what team members will be able to enact.

3.     Execution (never shoot the messenger)

Skill: Framing information to combat fear. Bad news must not be covered up. Leaders should have expert sources of information accessible and at the ready. Communication will be key to consistency when new information is rapidly emerging. While leaders often cannot give certainty in crisis, they can give consistency in the way messages are delivered. Calm, clear messaging that looks outward rather than inward and frames information in a regular style and format will provide reassurance and cut through. In a crisis, the audience will be highly attuned to contradictions, so it is imperative that leaders closely align information and actions (even if the two are changing daily). Business Continuity Plans have been used by many organisations to connect external factors with internal measures. In execution, leaders must take control of what is within their control and further, seek to give back as much control to their people as possible.

No alt text provided for this image

Leadership example: Jacinda Ardern successfully enacted a Stage 4 shutdown over four days with an 80% national approval rating. Key skills deployed: Transparent information-sharing, decisive action, utilisation of a familiar framework from bushfires, empathy, collective narrative-building including a kids’ press conference and live-streamed feeds from home.

No alt text provided for this image

As business as usual reinvents itself virtually before our eyes, leaders are piecing together the scale, pace, and depth of action required to stay solvent while the health crisis abates. Employee well-being, brand reputation, finance management, supply chain, people strategy and legal issues all require attention.

4.     Protect your people

Skill: Projecting a duty of care to stakeholders across the spectrum in times of crisis, is also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fortify relationships, build trust and garner loyalty from our employee and customer base (MIT Sloan, 2020). To care, is to focus outward on the collective and find ways to serve and support others. Your people must believe that their wellbeing is top of mind. How we communicate that authentically and follow up with action will be a key indicator of how we make our people feel at their most vulnerable – a measure that will never be forgotten. More broadly, contributing to the effort to evaluate and solve for mental and physical wellbeing during COVID-19 will define leadership and organisational success, given an economic reboot will require a fully engaged and productive workforce and customer base.

5.     Communicate leadership (not followership)

Skill: Communicating with influence requires leaders to listen at least as much as they speak. Good leaders are careful to ensure targeted comms that solve a problem directly for an audience. Great leaders influence their audience to solve wider problems for the collective. 

Leadership cannot follow. To have influence, one must rely on purpose, credibility and relevance. The latter factor seems to be the one leaders are struggling with. To many people, COVID-19 continues to represent a crisis felt financially and emotionally, rather than as an imminent health threat. Rational explanations and reassurance need to be complemented by an emotional response (AICD, March 2020).

Quickly leaders must drive and own a compelling narrative that shows recognition of the danger; empathy for the predicament, comprehension of the latest available data, action to ensure infrastructure to deal with implications, and ability to influence a united behavioural outcome. In the world of COVID-19, there are two levels of technical skills proving paramount: interpretation of the incoming information data; and the competence to use online messaging well to maximise leadership potential.

No alt text provided for this image

Leadership Example: Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson successfully demonstrated powerful leadership communication in his message to stakeholders when he spoke honestly about the losses his company is suffering and committed to forgoing a salary for the remainder of the year and cutting those of his executive team by 50 percent.

6.     Scenario planning

Skill: Scenario planning will play into agile strategy formulation across financial management, product design, workforce mapping and supply chain innovation. The definition of scenario planning is identifying a specific set of uncertainties, different “realities” of what might happen in the future of your business” (Mariton, March 2020). Each scenario should contain just enough detail to assess the likely success or failure of the strategic option. Scenarios may be built around one single question or sets of variables. These different realities could probe economic outcomes, product demand, supply chain resilience, competition manoeuvres, technology adoption, geopolitical instability, etc. One way to explore each scenario is to build in a SWOT analysis to weigh internal strengths and weaknesses against external threats and opportunities implicated.

7.     Mapping talent and deployable skills

Skill: Resourced based value creation suggests that while in the COVID-19 holding pattern, leaders should consider the value of time. One million jobs lost equates to around one billion hours of potential reskilling or upskilling opportunity in the next six months (ABC, 2020). Australia’s economy has slipped to rank 93rd in complexity (WEF, 2020), meaning our resilience in the face of various crises is low. To retain a future competitive advantage globally, companies need to ensure that technology adoption, as well as tech literacy and proficiency are inherent in their business models. Some leaders are already utilising the downturn to clear up that database and rethink product delivery, but pushing further and automating legacy processes or training people in high-demand future skillsets will likely prove advantageous. Moreover, reviewing the underutilised or potential skills of the current workforce enables a fast pivot of resources when new demand for new products comes to fruition.

No alt text provided for this image

8.     One eye on the ground, one on the horizon

Skill: Think slow think fast. Leaders who can retain an intimate understanding of where their employee, customer and shareholder sentiment sits combined with a big picture analysis of government priorities and policies, global epidemiological indicators and social behaviour trends will be on the front foot when competitive positions are reset. Mapping next horizons can drive sustained engagement, role clarity and productivity as the bounce back suddenly requires the workforce to rev up again. Optimism founded in fact is a leadership trait worthy of special mention. Optimistic leaders naturally inspire and motivate those around them, in turn manifesting and detecting opportunity sooner than others.

No alt text provided for this image

Leadership Example: Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh, who wrote a letter to employees encouraging them to focus on the crisis’ silver lining. “One of the things motivating me through this difficult time is the idea that we can learn and adapt and adjust so we emerge stronger as a result of this test,” he wrote. The crisis “will pass. We will get through this together and be a better and stronger company as a result of it.” (The Conversation, 2020)

9.     Reimagining the entire business system within a new context

‘Institutions that reinvent themselves to make the most of better insight and foresight, as preferences evolve, will disproportionally succeed’ (McKinsey, 2020). Contactless delivery, supply chains closer to the end-user, technology adoption to drive productivity when labour is unavailable will likely prove to be competitive advantages. 

EY analysis predicts, “To operate successfully in this marketplace, businesses need a mindset of adaptive performance and a new framework to respond to volatility and grasp the opportunities that are now emerging.” The framework focuses on a reassessment of sustainable value, and can be overlaid with analysis of emerging conditions from the scenario planning discussed earlier.

Essentially, leaders must take this opportunity to disrupt themselves as well as their organisations. Many leaders are beginning to give voice to the suspicion that while COVID-19 will have devastating consequences, the world needed a reset. That our pace, consumption, way of life, was somehow getting away from us. Leaders who can recognise the opportunity to build a new normal, to dramatically restructure the economic and social order in which business and society have traditionally operated, will find themselves with a new plan, when the first bullet is fired. 

And an army of new world leaders, ready for action.