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Why the Early Days of Crisis Management Are So Easy: How to Lead When the Adrenaline Fades

Veteran leaders who are experienced with crisis management have a secret – it’s easier than it looks!

Of course, the nature of the crisis itself, such as its tangible impact on the team and customers, determines the overall severity of the event. However, the fundamental leadership “lift” is often much lighter in the early days of a crisis compared to the weeks that follow… or even those that precede the event.

Under Blue Skies (the business resiliency term for normal, non-crisis operating environments), most modern leaders find themselves competing with a multitude of internal and external organizational noise, making it difficult to gain and maintain the attention of their own direct reports, let alone critical stakeholders outside their direct sphere of influence. Likewise, the complexity of this environment makes it hard to instill the urgency of new objectives, tools and strategies.

As the Black Skies (emergency management conditions) of a crisis roll in, like a global pandemic for example, one might expect things to go from difficult to impossible; however, suddenly everyone is paying attention. There is often a little argument about the need to put old work down and pick new workup. Directions are messaged once and it all just happens – no extensive change management needed. The adrenaline kicks in and people work hard to combat the threat, oftentimes alongside peers they once hesitated to trust. Natural synergy emerges, bonds are forged and spirits are high despite the adversity and uncertainty.

Unfortunately, this “high” rarely lasts. As the adrenaline washes out, a new batch of emotions rush in and people begin to grow weary of the continuous extra effort, resentful of what was abandoned, and suffocated by new operating processes they are starting to despise more and more each day. This is where millions of teams are finding themselves right now and where the heavy lift begins.

Remembering the Purpose of Leading

Leadership exists because deep in our nature, and parallel to our struggle to survive as a relatively fragile species, is the capacity to visualize and pursue objectives together that we cannot achieve alone. At its core, leadership is a process of social organization meant to yield willing, capable and sustainable communities of effort. When everyone is alert and motivated, as they often are in the early days of a crisis, this process is made easier. When people are tired, unfocused and agitated, it is exponentially harder. Succeeding in this scenario requires a return to the basics.

Clarifying the Work of Leading

Leadership is not just a matter of influencing individuals to act. Influence alone creates the will signified above but ignores both capability and sustainability. A willing, capable and sustainable community of effort, must be thoughtfully designed, consistently engaged and continuously improved. These elements form the three domains of leading summarized best as structure, operate and perfect. They represent the high-level components of the comprehensive leadership framework known as the LeadershipSOPs. Upon seeing or hearing of the model for the first time, most leaders initially identify with the more common “standard operating procedures” definition of SOPs, which is correct but incomplete.

LeadershipSOPs are your standard operating procedures for structuring, operating and perfecting your communities of effort. Effectively, the SOPs acronym is a mnemonic double entendre representing both a comprehensive framework for the work of leading (structuring, operating and perfecting communities of effort) and a simple methodology for pursuing that work (developing and deploying standard operating procedures).Getting to know this framework and consistently using the methodology in Blue and Black Skies helps leaders:

  • Combat haphazard leadership styles which result in a lack of team trust and collaboration
  • Lead more comprehensively, and differentiate the teams’ work from their own
  • Improve through practice
  • Simplify leadership discussions with other leaders by making them more tangible

Structure: SCOPE the WORK

The typical organization consists of a hierarchy of divisions, departments and teams. Each unit and sub-unit has its own individual but massively interconnected SCOPE – strategy, culture, objective, purpose and ecosystem – to manage. It is helpful to think of SCOPE as the familiar mission, vision and values components with the addition of a more systemic assessment of the overall context (ecosystem) and the resulting methods for allocating resources and informing action (strategies) thrown in.

In the early days of a crisis, organizations frequently do a decent job controlling the messaging about the essential changes each unit must make for the company to respond successfully. However, as time drags on, these highly controlled and centralized processes often weaken as energy and focus wane, leaving each individual unit and sub-unit to make unspoken and uncoordinated adjustments to their strategies, operations and organizations. As a result, individual teams, whole departments and divisions, and the company as a whole often fall completely out of sync. Neighboring departments begin pursuing divergent strategies which cannibalize the same essential resources. Key outputs from one team no longer meet the specifications of other internal customers, and the list goes on.

In Blue Skies, SCOPE alignment typically takes place according to a pre-set cadence, taking the shape of a cyclical strategic planning process. However, as the black clouds of a crisis set in, leaders must often consider triggering this important process outside its typical schedule. As a crisis wears on, leaders need to judge, with their teams and across the organization, the right time to step back and reconsider whether or not the crisis is impacting the design of the team itself. This is done best by considering the SCOPE components in reverse. For example:

  • Has the ecosystem shifted?
  • Have internal or external stakeholders changed their SCOPEs, and if not, are they planning to?
  • What about their needs and interactions?
  • Have any of these changes to the ecosystem altered the purpose or objectives of the team?
  • Has the culture begun to shift?
  • Does it need to shift?
  • What about the strategies?
  • Are they informing the correct themes for resource allocation and action?
  • Do they need to be re-crafted to better align with an evolving ecosystems, purposes, objectives and cultures across the company?

Of course, realigning the SCOPE is only half of the battle. If the crisis is having an impact on the SCOPE, it is likely also impacting the WORK, meaning work methods, organizational structure, reward systems and the knowledge or capabilities required. In a crisis, this means quickly assessing the changing work methods and tools. Ask yourself:

  • Are new methods required?
  • How are the proposed changes to process and tools impacting the structure needed to support the effort?
  • Must the governance, roles or total force evolve or all three?
  • Are historical rewards encouraging the right behaviors or fighting against progress?
  • Do changes need to be made?
  • What new knowledge and capabilities are required?
  • Do you already possess them? If not, how will they be developed or acquired?

Operate: Set the PASE

Getting the structure “right” doesn’t matter in the real world unless the team is operated as designed. The LeadershipSOPs framework leverages the PASE Model to drive home the three critical dimensions within the operate domain. These activities occur daily and typically establish the basic cadence of the team. They are planning, accountability and stakeholder engagement.

  • Planning refers to the detailed operational and financial planning which must accompany the high-level SCOPE and WORK alignment. Often, this process has an impact on both the SCOPE and WORK design ex. costs come in too high or timelines weren’t aggressive enough. Accountability divides up into the execution components associated with assigning work, aligning on the means of execution, executing the work, leveraging appropriate monitoring and evaluation mechanisms focused on process and outcomes data, and after-action, performance management routines. For accountability to exist, all of these critical components need to be in place. For instance, if there is a breakdown in assigning the work, it is unlikely to be performed as expected. Additionally, if only outcomes are monitored, the actual work process will be obscured and prevent or slow performance improvement efforts.
  • Lastly, stakeholder engagement includes all of the routine and ad hoc interactions with customers, collaborators and competitors. These mechanisms ensure leaders stay in touch with employees, peers, supervisors, boards, partners and clients in good times and bad. As a crisis wears on, many will put their heads down and “cocoon.” Leaders often need to double-down on their stakeholder efforts to stay connected to the entire ecosystem using the information gathered to continually test the assumptions inherent in the new SCOPE.

Perfect: Transform and Master

Yesterday’s excellence is today’s standard and tomorrow’s failure. To stay relevant in a changing world, all communities of effort must continuously evolve. Nothing drives this truth home like Black Skies. The LeadershipSOPs leverages its ECT(M) Transformation Model to explore and clarify action, transform behavior and master new processes and tools. This process is based on the positive side of what is commonly called the change curve. This curve marks the individually and organizationally dangerous, but normal, responses to change e.g. ignoring, resisting and retreating; as well as the more positive phases which begin with an exploration of what the change really is; and move to clarifying objectives and action; before shifting to taking tangible action to transform behavior and master new behaviors by fully integrating them into existing ones.

Leaders can use this process to develop LeadershipSOPs for use with individuals as in coaching and mentoring, teams via team assessment and development and organizational change, including enterprise-wide transformation and crisis management.

Mastering the ABCs SOPs of Leading

During Blue Skies and Black, great leaders leverage their LeadershipSOPs to pursue personal proficiency through practice, team collaboration through consistent processes, and continuous improvement through a lifetime of micro and macro adjustments. Determining which LeadershipSOPs to develop and when to deploy them can sometimes be tricky. Remembering the SOP acronym is a double entendre, representing both the domains of the work and the basic process of leading is a great start. After that, the rest is as easy as one, two, three:

  1. SCOPE the WORK
  2. Set the PASE
  3. Transform and Master

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

A former strategy executive and Marine turned executive coach and organizational consultant, Ed Tyson is the chief architect of LeadershipSOPs – a ground-breaking leadership methodology and framework that encourages leaders to develop and deploy standard operating procedures to structure, operate and perfect their communities of effort. He works hand-in-hand with boards, leadership teams and C-level leaders from around the country to assess and correct issues ranging from solvency to strategy and is a tested executive coach and an individual, group and organizational development expert. To learn more about LeadershipSOPs, visit www.LeadershipSOPs.com.

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