We are living in extraordinary times. A once in a century event.
I have been talking about the need to be more ‘agile’ in a world where volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are the new normal. This agility not only applies to private organisations and individuals but also to our National and State Governments. Having worked with groups in the public sector, they work within an environment which is highly constrained. The levels of bureaucracy can be mind-blowing for many people.
The German sociologist Max Weber argued that bureaucracy constitutes the most efficient and rational way in which human activity can be organised and that systematic processes and organised hierarchies are necessary to maintain order, maximise efficiency, and eliminate favouritism. On the other hand, Weber also saw unfettered bureaucracy as a threat to individual freedom, with the potential of trapping individuals in an impersonal “iron cage” of rule-based, rational control.*
This paradox is a major challenge for Governments and business leaders across the world. In a crisis or when chaos is highly probable, Governments seek to create calm and reassure their people that they have the situation under control. However the need to act swiftly and be more agile is at odds with the usual processes of government and their agencies. We can see examples of this across Australia at the moment, where agencies such as Centrelink and the various Departments of Health struggle to meet the volume of enquiries and admissions.
So could our leaders and businesses have been more prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic?
If you Google “probability of a pandemic” one of the articles which appears on the first page is “The next global pandemic could kill millions of us. Experts say we’re really not prepared.” published on September 19, 2019. It is an article based on a report from the World Bank and World Health Organisation. It highlights all the things that governments needed to pay attention to and unfortunately foretells what we are experiencing now in March 2020.
Two of the recommendations stand out for me – governments, through their public health programmes, need to proactively build trust with the people. Secondly, they need to work with women, because they provide the majority of care in society, and their engagement ensures that policies and interventions are accepted.
What can we take from these findings?
Leading through a crisis needs a different style of change leadership. This crisis is also different from anything we have experienced before. It is not a war and it is not just a financial crisis. It is a health, social and financial crisis all in one. The magnitude cannot be understated and what this means is as a leader you will need to change the way you run your organisation and do this quickly.
This is a time of rapid transformation. With your teams moving to remote working the way in which you interact with them will change the psychological contract for ever. Your success as a leader depends on many things, in this article I consider just three of them – Trust, Stakeholders and your Processes & Systems.
In our work, Ro Gorell and I work with leaders and their teams to help them with transforming their organisations. We believe that trust forms the cornerstone of success in changing behaviours and this article highlights just that. Without trust in our leaders, and in our health system, there is very little chance of mitigating the impact of a pandemic and long term societal changes in behaviour to reduce the probability of it happening in another 100 years.
Your organisation has changed forever. You will need to demonstrate trust with your employees. Micro-managing and a command and control style will not work well with a remote workforce. Your teams will become used to working remotely and when this crisis is over elements of this will be expected to be part of the new paradigm.
Identifying your key stakeholders in any change is also critical to success. Who are the key influencers and how can you work with them to get them bought into this change?
According to the report, women are the key influencers when it comes to acceptance of policies and interventions during pandemics. It appears, at this early stage governments have needed to resort to increasing their powers of detention and rule of law rather than relying on people to change their habits and behaviours.
There is a need for directive leadership in times of chaos, however if governments had heeded the advice in the report and prepared their people for such an event, it may have resulted in less draconian measures. Experience in the management of recent pandemics such as SARS and MERS has also contributed to the early success of countries such as South Korea and Singapore. Their populations have been more willing to follow instructions and change their behaviour.
As a leader, you need to nurture the key influencers who will support your organisation moving to this new paradigm And you need to demonstrate compassion and empathy with your employees.
Processes & Systems
How agile are your processes and systems? In times of disruption your businesses survival will depend upon the flexibility of your core processes such as how you recruit and induct new employees and how your accounts payable and accounts receivable teams work from home.
Do you also have a technology infrastructure which can continue to function, securely, with most of your teams working from home?
Dave Snowden has developed the Cynefin framework – which is a framework for leaders to assist with decision making. Using this framework as a guide, he suggests that when faced with chaos you need to act to establish order, then sense where there is stability and where there is not, and then respond to transform the situation from chaos to complexity, as quickly as possible.
In order to do this your people, processes and systems need to be flexible enough to adapt to the new paradigm as soon as you can. It is also a time for innovation and the emergence of novel solutions.
Over the last 5-10 years organisations have spent millions of dollars on agile transformation programmes. Now is the time when the metal hits the road. We will see which organisations are able to respond quickly and effectively and emerge on the other side.
At Change Optimised, we work with leaders and their teams on the skills they need to navigate the complex world of change and transformation. We do this by providing training, coaching, facilitation and mentoring programmes, based on over 35 years of experience across many industries and cultures.