Garry Sanderson

Associate Consultant,
Behavioural Science

There will be no business leaders who aren't worried about the current global dynamics, particularly the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

This worry is being exacerbated by the frenzy of media attention that is increasing the climate of fear, confusion, and uncertainty. As I am writing this an entire country has gone into lockdown. So how should a progressive leader think about leading their team and their people in this turbulent time? 

I have my own unanticipated challenge to deal with at the moment. Last Saturday, I had my finger badly broken by a hockey ball. The short version of the story is that following surgery, I can't write or drive for a few weeks, leading to a significant degree of business disruption and not a little self-isolation. This is having much more impact on my business than coronavirus and I'm now working out how to deal with the situation.

My response is not to redefine what I’m doing or why I’m doing it. I see that the key challenge is to redefine how I do it. Changing how we do things is incredibly hard. We are used to staying in our comfort zones, managing our business as usual. Even with a compelling need to change, we just don’t know how to respond. We know no other way than what we’ve always done.

So, as I think about my current situation I see three options:

  1. The first option is to effectively stop and do nothing until I recover and the situation improves. Perhaps not many would argue with this cautious approach. However, it's only my right hand that’s injured - not the rest of my body and certainly not my brain. So this option feels frustrating and wasteful. 
  2. The second option is to persevere with business as usual, battling to try and work the way I always work. I could type painfully slowly and try and get around by whatever modes of transport I can manage - doing all my normal activities in the same way, just slower, more painfully and much less efficiently.
  3. The third option is what I'm trying today which is to think about what I want to achieve and explore how to do so in a different way. In particular, I'm going to experiment with the use of digital technology to help me work quicker, faster and better.

"We are used to staying in our comfort zones, managing our business as usual."


And that's exactly what I'm doing this morning.

For the first time, I'm having a meaningful attempt at using dictation software to transcribe what I'm talking about, which is how this article has been created. This is an experiment - I don't know how it's going to work but I'll learn something - and I wouldn't have done it if I hadn't had the challenging situation of a broken finger. The initial results are promising. I seem to be able to create lots of content very quickly and then edit it slowly with my left hand. You wouldn't be reading this article if I hadn't tried this experiment.

This thought process seems to be relevant to the current situation faced by leaders. The coronavirus is causing a significant period of uncertainty, change, confusion, and fear. Business leaders and organisations would appear to have a similar set of options. They could simply close down significant aspects of their operations and wait it out. They could battle on with business as usual in the face of increasing resistance and constraints, without addressing the reality of the situation. Or they could seek ways to adapt, experimenting with how they could do things differently to achieve their most important goals.

A real-time example came up yesterday in considering what to do about a major event that is planned for the end of the month. Three options were discussed. First; simply cancel the event. Second; keep going with the event as planned and hope that everything turns out okay in the face of the coronavirus uncertainty. The third option was to think about the event and what it's trying to achieve and re-design it as an innovative digital event with online participation remotely and virtually.

So here are a few things that I would recommend that leaders consider in this current environment:

Firstly, are you and your team clear about exactly what you must achieve and why? I would challenge you to identify the top 3 to 5 critical activities that are critical to your success. (In general, we are burdened with far too many competing objectives and priorities.)

Secondly, how might you engage your people to think about how these critical activities can be achieved in a different way given the constraints of the current situation you are facing? I'm a true believer in the strength and wisdom that resides within teams and organisations which generally lies dormant and untapped.

Thirdly, how do you really challenge yourself and your people to think differently? To what extent can you take advantage of the current crisis to stimulate different ways of thinking, drive innovation and accelerate change. Remember you're in a Darwinian competitive environment and others will be doing the same.

I believe these progressive leadership behaviours will help to 'vaccinate' your organisation against turbulence and uncertainty. Vaccinations involve a little short-term pain and disruption to grow longer-term resilience. Of course, the best time to vaccinate is before the issues arise in your environment. But even in the midst of a crisis, it's appropriate to think this way, as whatever you do will be better than doing nothing and will improve your resilience and productivity.

Given my own circumstances, I'm going to keep experimenting, get some feedback and hopefully learn a few things. I'm trying to keep calm, adapt and carry on with the things that are most important in new and different ways. Who knows when my finger is better I might have learned a few new tricks!

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