Fighting Covid-19: Prime time for heroic leadership? A battle of Agile vs Resilience.
On March 11th, a nervous WHO eventually declared the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic. And since then its apocalyptic progression around the world has been terrifying. Whilst working here non-stop in my Amsterdam living room-turned-crisis office, my heart goes out to all the victims of this catastrophe and to all those involved in the exhausting battle against the virus, and those who keep up critical services courageously in spite of it.
As a result of the epidemic, and beyond all the terrible human tragedy, business leaders everywhere have fought an uphill battle to maintain operations, implementing business continuity plans at the ever-increasing speed of contagion, with country after country going into lockdown. Many corporate leaders will feel hard-pressed to prove their mettle as true commanders in chief, exercising rigorous control of their organisations, all through its ranks. If that is your case as well, here are a few thoughts for you, as crisis leaders, to consider.
1. First things first: Crisis Management in Times of Corona
In a major crisis, well engrained organizational habits and decision-making processes become ineffective.
- 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”.
In times of the corona crisis, leaders must be careful to trust their guts.
- 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”.
2. Best Practices in Crisis Management: Is Agile Fragile?
But if we cannot trust our guts, what can we do? Does Agile Management help or hinder? In a recent HR Hard Talk with Mihaly Nagy, Ricardo Troiano and I collaborated to present a perspective. Unanimously, we suggested that under the umbrella of an integrated crisis management governance, leveraging Agile ways of working will enable organisations to step up a gear in dealing with an Enterprise-wide crisis.
Agile Enterprises are predestined to adapt to changing environments.
- 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”.
Agile effectively harnesses the collective intelligence of all the teams, within an integrated system.
- 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.
When facing a global crisis, organizations need to continually adapt — more than ever — to a fast-evolving situation and respond flexibly and locally, whilst maintaining global cohesion.
- 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.
Is Agile fragile?
- 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.
In conclusion, I believe that a combination of strong Agile teams, combined into dynamic networks under the umbrella of an effective crisis integration team, can constitute a very effective backbone of a resilient crisis response. McKinsey recently proposed such a model as a “minimum viable nerve centre of crisis management”.
Whilst some authors may argue that Agile methods are advancing towards the end of their natural lifecycle, I remain convinced that the notion of an Agile Enterprise, as a foundation of organizational learning at scale, will remain relevant in and beyond the present crisis. As BCG’s CEO Rich Lesser anticipated last year, companies mastering the 2020ies will be those who are able to effectively “compete on learning”.
3. Leadership for the Crises: Heroes Wanted?
Now, what about leadership in times of crisis? Do we need heroic leaders to take absolute control of their ships and command them — stern eyes pointed at the unyielding waves of uncertainty — towards safe harbors?
In these difficult hours, understandably, anxiety abounds. We are all petrified — whilst trying to transition to remote working and organize home schooling for our kids, our eyes remain glued to television screens displaying hourly infection statistics. And senior leaders are exposed to numerous pressures — between concerns for their own health, their caring for employees and customers, and worries about the sustainability of their businesses.
In order to regain control over the external uncertainties and inward fears, the temptation of executives will be to lock down their businesses by enforcing central power. As Stephen Bungay describes it authoritatively in the “Art of Action” — when the pressure rises, many leaders will fall back onto more reporting, detailed KPIs, more hierarchy and increased governance. And there is a risk that once a “leviathan” is in place, it will be difficult to revert to normal after the crisis. Danny Tinga speaks here about the “migration of objectives” — individuals or groups might deploy their own political strategies throughout a crisis in order to gain durable advantages.
Examining the typical phases of crisis management in the context of a crisis like corona, I personally believe that “command and control” leadership will be effective during the initial response (phase 3 in the diagram), when uncertainty is extreme and things change daily, but will not prove effective in the long run. During the stabilization and recovery phases (phase 4 and 5), I am convinced that a combination of a globally integrated crisis governance with networks leveraging Agile leadership will yield best results. Agility and resilience, far from being opposites, can become mutually reinforcing twins in a crisis.
In a crisis, pace trumps perfection.
- 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.
For years, popular management literature has proliferated the fantasy of a patriarchic, heroic leadership, based on principal-agent theory: a highly capable (and mainly male and white) leadership elite would benevolently dominate masses of powerless agents, deploying stick-and-carrot to correct behaviours as appropriate. This era is over. In a human-centric (and unashamedly normative) view of the Enterprise, the pursuit of organizational purpose and meaning is a necessary condition for maximizing human development and realizing the vision of responsible capitalism, within and beyond the boundaries of the organization. Financial profits, rather than being an end in itself, constitute a continuous feedback to enable focused organizational learning and individual development. This brave new world needs less “commanders in chief” and more “communicators in chief” — or chief connectors — to craft and integrate human systems to enable collective leadership in pursuit of organizational ambitions, beyond the sum of their parts.
Agile leaders set destination, not direction.
- 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”.
Agile leadership is widely embedded in the system.
- 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.
In a nutshell, during these turbulent times the essence of situational Leadership remains to dynamically craft the best possible environment to facilitate and foster an evolving, integrated response to the crisis. Both in normal and crisis times we continually need to revise how to manage — as Manfred Kets de Vries once said “every baby has its mother; every leader has its context”.
- 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.
Yet, whatever the approach, these are no doubt tough times for senior leaders. If your schedule is similar to mine, there have hardly been any breaks throughout the last weeks. So, my personal suggestions for anyone doing their best to manage the crisis are -
- 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.
4. Love under Lockdown
A final word. Throughout the last decades, we have added fuel to an ever more individualistic and materialistic narrative in society, often ignoring the holistic needs of our planet. Eventually, we repented. Only a few months ago, in Davos, we swore solemnly to become better, to operate at “the edge of our courage” in order to pursue a globally responsible “stakeholder capitalism”, and to make our world a brighter place. We vigorously practiced telling stories of greater accountability for the environment and for our people — beyond the pursuit of growth and profit. Snowy mountaintops glittered in the winterly sun and the world seemed calm and full of hope. Since then, dark clouds have crowded our skies and the corona pandemic has impacted every nation and any person on the planet. Anguish and suffering are ubiquitous.
- 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.
Let me be clear: we are all afraid. Yet, fear shall never come in the way of courageously doing what is right. Let us not speak of darker days: let us speak of sterner days. This is the hour to walk together on a journey from fear and isolation to greater humanity and deeper healing, to make sure we come out of the crisis more resilient and more united, and certainly a bit wiser about what truly matters in life.