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How to manage a crisis while building next steps for the future

Olivier Herold

12 May 2020

All of us who lead organisations, however big or small, are experiencing how important it is to create space to think about building for the future and avoid getting stuck in “just” managing the crisis. 

During the first weeks I struggled with firefighting through what seemed, at times, an endless spiral of questions-decisions-actions-communications, feedback loops and corrective measures drawn from lessons learned. I often felt a tension, provoked by the longing to look ahead and to address the longer-term perspective for our clients and our business.

Recognizing this kind of tension between focusing on the crisis in the present, and the opportunities for the future, reminded me of a model developed by Barry Johnson on Polarity Management. This approach warns us of the danger of “either/or” thinking where we choose to focus on one end of a “polarity” at the expense of the other. 

Embracing business as (un)usual

The Polarity Management mindset encourages us to avoid viewing the situation we face as a problem-to-solve, in which we typically make either/or choices on where to focus our energy, and instead as polarities-to-manage where we think creatively about “both/and” approaches.

I shared these thoughts with my leadership team, and we started to rethink where and how to focus our collective energy to ensure that our responses to today’s challenges can position our business to thrive tomorrow. 

From a practical perspective, this helps us to deploy a number of approaches. Some examples are:

  • We hold team meetings where we consider both the short-term and long-term that we face. In doing so we more clearly see the connection between our work in the present and how that affects our future success
  • We visualise our success in the future (What will we be doing differently? Why we will have succeeded?) and visualise our success in the short-term, and work on the steps needed to create the bridge between the two
  • We bring those less senior and less represented in the organisation together with senior leaders to collectively shape ideas and lead initiatives on the way forward, getting the best from both the bottom and top of the organisation.

On a more personal note, creating headspace and time in my own agenda to constantly reframe my understanding of what’s happening and to think creatively about both approaches remains a challenge. I often hear that saving time in commuting has given us more time to think and reflect. Personally, I miss the international travel; Eurostar and plane travel provided me the headspace to do nothing else but scan the horizon.

I’ve connected with different entrepreneurs and leaders on how they manage to create headspace and time. Some of the tips they shared are:

  • Systematically leaving days free in their agenda to reflect on where the company stands with its strategy: What is working well? What doesn’t work and needs to be addressed differently? What have we missed, what else should we consider?
  • Periodically calling or sending mails to their associates with questions to make them focus on the long-term. The questions also aim at keeping them focused on how to achieve the strategy instead of changing the strategy when they are faced with a problem.
  • Encouraging my leadership team to prioritise, delegate, and empower their managers and teams to make decisions and “get stuff done” without them. 
  • Answering provocative questions: What are the realities that we are not facing now as an organization? What part of the culture is standing in the way of our ambitions? 

And you, what are you doing that helps you lead through the crisis and forecast for the new era of business as (un)usual? I look forward to hearing about your experiences and learn from them.

My very best wishes,

Olivier