Fighting Covid-19: Prime time for heroic leadership? A battle of Agile vs Resilience.

  • Crisis management, says Danny Tinga, Director of Crisis Response at Deloitte, fundamentally is the ability to adapt to novelty, bringing an often unwelcome novelty to an organization to mobilise an effective response. The fundamental difference between “business as usual” and crisis management is its unpredictability — “there are lots of things you can script, but not the response to a Black Swan singularity”.
  • Julian Birkinshaw and Andrew Likierman, our former Dean at London Business School, recently discussed “decision making in times of crisis” — virtually and with over a thousand alumni from around the world. It became clear that our ability to make decisions during a crisis like the corona pandemic is significantly hampered by a) a range of unconscious biases and filters influencing our interpretation of the situation, b) incomplete and often unreliable information, and c) our attempts to constantly categorise the unfolding events based on historic experiences. This frenzy pattern search for known “recipes” is doomed to fail under current circumstances — there simply is no historic event that would allow us to easily transfer and reapply tactics which have proven successful in the past.
  • Danny calls this the “experience paradox” — in times of crisis leaders can suffer both from too little experience in the process of crisis management (which is why companies who have dedicated and trained crisis response teams often have a head start), as well as a too much reliance on and confidence in their own personal experience: a misplaced “we have seen it all before” attitude can quickly lead to inaction or counterproductive responses when unfamiliar signals of change are being overlooked. Andrew concluded his seminar by saying: “in times of crisis, be careful to trust your guts”.
  • In our interpretation, Agile has always been primarily about accelerating organizational learning, and only secondarily about the necessity to deploy specific delivery methodologies in IT and beyond.
  • Agile is fundamentally about crafting human-centric learning organisations at scale — across functions, countries, cultures. At the heart of the Agile Enterprises is the ambition to collectively “become best at getting better”, so to speak.
  • Thinking Agile also means looking at an enterprise through the lens of a “living organism”, rather than using (only) a mechanistic metaphor. It means paying close attention to organizational context and the subtle psychodynamics of human interactions below-the-iceberg, the company’s “inner theatre”.
  • Effective learning requires cross-functional, autonomous teams leveraging the contribution of the largest possible number of engaged people. Which necessitates an organizational culture and mindset of transparency, openness and trust. That’s why, more than installing Kanban boards, Agile companies must nurture psychological safety. “Fearless organizations” live failure as an opportunity for improvement. Creativity cannot thrive where the angst of making mistakes stops experimentation.
  • And, whilst not the sole focus, Agile methodologies matter. Collaborative team routines can enable “corrective experiences” and help to foster “radical candour” — the right balance between caring and performance — to drive towards high-performance within the team and the wider organization.
  • This does not necessarily mean that everybody should hastily re-organize into tribes and squads and arrange daily standups. Yet, Bill Torbert suggests that “liberating structures” are required to initiate effective “peer communities of learning” and enable continual quality improvement (CQI) across the organization.
  • Flatter hierarchies and new network-based organizational forms, as Dave Ulrich and Jon Ingham (or the Corporate Rebels) advocate, can also support this quest.
  • In a crisis, the first priority is to protect health and safety of people. In an Agile organization a “people first” philosophy is universal and managers will react quickly to mitigate any threat. Those organisations where the leaders have shown care for their people and where there has been mutual trust pre-Covid19 will be more successful in taking their organisations through this crisis.
  • Secondly, the true extent of the crisis has to be identified and the crisis response organized to maintain customer service, whilst hardening control and reliability of vital infrastructure and processes. Established cross-functional governance forums (like obeya rooms) and networks within an Agile organization can help information to actively flow through the arteries of the enterprise, across functions and boundaries, and to ensure transparency and fast identification and mitigation of risks. As was suggested, the speed at which “bad news” travels within the organisation, is the single, most important indicator of agile maturity.
  • Once the initial crisis response is achieved, focus will revert to stabilizing crisis operations — in the present case that means most colleagues will work remotely from home. Agile collaboration methodologies and mechanisms can provide structure and continuity, facilitate a strong business-wide crisis response and foster a sense of normality amidst the “anomality”. Teams who are quickly adapting their existing Agile team routines to remote and virtual working are faster at regaining productivity, building on existing team dynamics. The second most relevant indicator of agile maturity is the length of learning cycles — the “time 2 learn” — most action will be local, but lessons learned should be continuously cross-fertilized globally. Decentralized ownership in small autonomous teams can ensure fast intervention anticipating risks before they become issues.
  • In addition, companies need to stress-test their P&L and update their business plans. Agile business-wide alignment mechanisms can support dynamic planning and rapid readjustment of priorities and capacity across the enterprise.
  • Some might harbor a belief that Agile is primarily focused on managing innovation and commercial upside, as opposed to developing resilience for times of downside risk. This might be true in some implementations of Agile, yet in my experience Agile absolutely does not imply a unilateral focus on commercial innovation at the expense of risk or control management — product owners or tribe leads remain always accountable for the holistic performance of their business areas, including financial and non-financial risk and compliance. Agile is simply a mechanism to collectively pursue and continuously evolve the purpose a business embraces.
  • In addition, I will argue that Agile organisations — through their decentralised yet integrated, organic nature — can provide much more resilience through continual incremental and local adaptations than more centrally steered, traditional and “robust” organisations. Rather than being fragile, Agile organisations enable “Anti-fragility” (Thanks to Sergio Caredda and Eike Wagner for these observations!). At the same time, Agile management allows for dynamic Enterprise-wide re-prioritisation of resources to react to emerging global risks collectively. For example, through quarterly Enterprise-wide alignment cycles, specific requirements can easily be reinforced as absolute priorities across all Agile backlogs and teams.
  • From an ontological perspective, “command and control” structures are effective in dealing with chaotic systems (see Dave Snowden’s “cynefin” framework below). This is true for a turnaround as for a pandemic. And, yes, for the record: despite sometimes ideological debates in the Agile community, “waterfall” management can in certain circumstances be effective and necessary.
  • Decisive and even draconian measures from governments to contain contagion through non pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) have proven to be the only valid response to protect citizens’ lives — and countries that hesitated to impose these are now struggling to regain control. See HBR’s excellent summary of the “Lessons from Italy’s Response to Coronavirus”.
  • In businesses, during the initial crisis response employees had to be protected, vital customer services maintained, liquidity and capital risks managed, and critical infrastructure hardened against cybersecurity or simply capacity risks. Here is a very useful summary from BCG of decisions all CEOs must consider — “Big Decisions for CEOs Right Now — and Urgent Questions About the Time After”.
  • But once the immediate response is organized and boundary or enabling conditions are set to coordinate the organization towards a clearly defined crisis management outcome, the system evolves towards a “complex” state. Throughout this potentially extensive “crisis stabilization” phase, decentralized adaptation remains king and centralized control structures need to be eased to enable business-wide agility.
  • A lot has already been said about leadership in an Agile Enterprise. The essence of Agile leadership is to continuously calibrate autonomy and alignment. Effective agile leaders will yield control in line with growing maturity of their teams — focussing on co-creating shared purpose and on coaching and enabling teams to autonomously establish and progress towards the right direction.
  • This does not mean that leaders abdicate the accountability for outcomes. Agile is not anarchy and many agile transformations fail because leaders misunderstand the difference between letting go of control and teams fully accepting, or being able to accept, the ownership of their mission. Yet, rather than telling people what to do just to fulfill their own hedonistic desires, comply with societal expectations or yield to their insecure egos’ need for control, Agile leaders earn trust and respect from followers because they self-sacrifice their positional powers to bring out the best in others and generate forward-looking, common purpose.
  • Leadership in an Agile system is therefore more complex and requires more experience and personal maturity than managing in more traditional structures. Agile leaders need to develop self-acceptance and self-awareness, and a high level of personal consciousness to be able to “let go” of their desire to control — effective leadership is “beyond the ego” (John Knights), in service of a higher purpose. It is more about the right questions, than the right answers. A mature “strategist” (Bill Torbert), or “self-transforming leader” (Bob Kegan), is able to examine both themselves and the organizational system from a “transpersonal” vantage point — holding at the same time different perspectives of the world. Think about seeing all the colours in Graves’s “spiral dynamics”.
  • The best Agile leaders become immensely capable at sensing and stimulating the energies in the human system, and converging them towards a meaningful emerging purpose. What is being said, and what is not? Who has (informal) authority, and who has not? Complex adaptive systems cannot be controlled, but only be nudged — through “generative dialogue” and continual “probing, sensing, and responding” — into the right direction.
  • As science tells us, human beings feel motivated when they have a strong sense of orientation and meaning, a sense of belonging, self-esteem, and autonomy. “Presencing” leaders (Otto Scharmer) need to understand the needs and desires of the individuals and teams, and, like “gardeners of human systems”, strive to provide the best possible holding environment for human flourishing. Rather than patriarchic, these environments will predominantly be characterized by maternal energies.
  • Ultimately, leaders relinquish unilateral logistical power to become themselves part of the context to enable a true learning organization. In an Agile enterprise, Leadership is not a role or position in an org chart, it is an organizational ability to move from A to an ever-evolving B, through continual trial-and-error. Hierarchy, in its traditional sense, becomes irrelevant. Decentralized leadership becomes a capability embedded in the organization at large.
  • The Agile dichotomy between autonomy and alignment remains valid also in times of crisis management — the more boundary conditions stabilise and teams mature, the more autonomy these teams should attain.
  • Whilst an initial strong and visible intervention of top-down leadership is no doubt appropriate to establish or amend objectives and governance (as new boundary conditions), its effectiveness will quickly diminish throughout the duration of the crisis when leadership has to again be owned by all parts of the organization. Getting the timings right to adapt your leadership style is key.
  • Protect your people. Deal with human aspects as a first priority.
  • Show you care. In these times, early, transparent and active communication is critical — especially for vulnerable groups like infected employees, or people with infections in their family, singles, colleagues still working from offices, or even new joiners. Employees need to feel informed and involved in what is happening at the top, and business scenarios should be co-created with wide participation across the business. Motivation and engagement need to be sustained in virtual, remote settings. A 5-min check-in call on a Friday afternoon to show your personal concern and support might be more effective than yet another 8am daily checkpoint.
  • Establish an effective crisis working mode to maintain commercial rigour and to upgrade operational resilience. Plan for the long run. Revise your working model regularly and be careful to bulldozer central corporate bureaucracy over the colleagues battling in the fields. Establish the right degree of transparency and put in place guiding principles, ensure the right teams are in place and connected, continuously enable your leaders to lead — and get out of their way.
  • Look for opportunities to improve your company sustainably, to be continued after the crisis. And remember to do good.
  • Finally, make sure you look after yourself, establishing a new and healthy “rhythm of life”. Permit yourself the time to reflect and ensure you are at your very best when your communities need you most.
  • In this dark hour, we as leaders must come together, within and beyond organizational boundaries, to take care of our people, employees and customers, and our communities at large. When physical distancing is keeping us apart, let us practice social closeness. When hope is scarce, let us role model the spirit, the empathy, the decency and the unity needed.
  • In these dire times let us not shut ourselves off from the world. Where global problems require global solutions, let us look beyond our own borders to fully engage with the rest of the world. Let us harness the resourcefulness of our people and help the world to drive a coordinated global response.
  • In times of despair and loss, let us honor those who put their lives at risk everyday by making good on our promises to change our future for the better, selflessly and in a sustainable way. Let us not put personal gain above collective responsibility. If we continue to ignore the needs of our planet, the current virus will become harbinger of even worse events to come.



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Otti Vogt

Otti Vogt


Disruptive thinker, amateur poet and passionate global C-level transformation leader with over 20 years of experience in cross-cultural strategic change