I’ve lived through a lot of unforeseen business disruption: 9 recessions, one was termed “great”. Two gulf wars, 9/11 attacks, market crashes, countless fires and earthquakes…and now the global COVID-19 pandemic.
What does disruption and turmoil teach us? Like soldiers describing battle, it’s not a pleasant experience, to say the least, but one we can and must learn from. One learns a bit from seeing companies thrive during the good times. Thriving companies are like well-trained pro sports teams: each player knows his or her job, they all know the team strategy, and they execute as close to flawlessly as is humanly possible.
I think we can learn a lot more from the bad times. The discipline of advanced
preparation is one we all wish we had more of. Hard work in the face of adversity pays off bigtime. And finding new pathways to prosper is critical.
But what about the transition period, the time after the worst but before we’re back to normal? What about the abyss of time and distance between the low of lows and the sure-to-come highs ahead of us?
I propose that this is the critical time for CEOs and leading their companies to future prosperity. Now is the time to plan, to position, and to point themselves in a direction forward.
Here are three skills I believe every exec needs to embrace as we begin to see the light.
1) Rapid Assessment, Adaptability, and Action
Business schools have taught the need to embrace change for decades. But just embracing it is not enough to be a market leader. Some will see change as it happens. Others will anticipate change to a degree. And but a very few will actually see and act on changes before they even happen.
Even then, it’s not enough. Market leaders have to not only see it, but adapt rapidly to changes, and respond with ACTION. Leaders don’t lead from the rear, they lead from the front. And to be up front you need to take action. I believe in what’s referred to as the Boyd Loop, an approach perfected by pilot John Boyd as a way of winning more air-to-air battles.
The Boyd Loop is also known as the O-O-D-A Loop. It stands for the quick process fighter pilots must go through to survive their battles: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. It’s the same for business. Observe the situation, the marketing, the conditions. Orient yourself, to the emerging market situation, to the changes you anticipate, and to the best expectations for what the future will offer. Then decide on the best course of action, and ACT!!!
Analysis by paralysis is the kiss of death in volatile times. Sure, acting too fast can be a bad thing, but a benefit of action is that it motivates others to join the effort. Clients, vendors, suppliers, and employees like companies that decide their own fate by taking decisive action. And even if an action proves less than perfect, reacting rapidly and changing course again and again is seen as a strength, not a weakness. In my experience, companies are far more forgiving of a company trying new things than those that sit back and twiddle their fingers.
2) Leverage People Power By Facing Forward
This is a hard one. When stuff hits the fan, our natural reaction is to stop moving forward, to circle the wagons, and to hunker down. And the truth be told, there are times that is the prudent course of action. But probably not as often as you’d expect.
If there is one lesson we’ve learned in bad times, it’s that people are far more resilient than we think. Given the chance, and faced with the need, many people will work harder. They’ll pull together. They’ll sacrifice now for a better tomorrow. In just the early days of COVID-19, seamstresses sewed masks, manufactures rapidly retooled, frontliners came in from around the country to the hottest of hot spots, teachers went online, and we all learned to Zoom. And we got things done.
This massive shift was as close to a wartime effort as most generations have ever seen. Once we realized how serious this was, people began to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work. And we realize we share the common goal of getting back to “normal”, whatever the new normal will be.
The key is that we all knew the destination – getting back to normal. Getting back to school, to work, to family, to friends, and to living as we so love to do.
Leaders must point their teams in a direction, and that direction must be seen as forward. Your map doesn’t have to be perfect, but you need to know where you’re headed, so you can lead others to a better place.
3) Friends, Teams, and Partners Will Get You There Quicker
Simply put, you can’t do it alone. You can try, but you’re just not as effective when you work in a vacuum.
Physically, we are better in teams. We can help with the heavy lifting, form bucket lines, throw our collective weight wherever it’s needed. We can bring more ideas to the table, spark inspiration in others. Well trained teams don’t look for solo glory, they will work to bring the best out in each other.
Need help? Ask. Reach out. Find someone who does something better than you, then enlist their services. And future proof these friends, teams, and strategic partners. Create an environment of shared experience, and shared benefit. Make yourself easy to work with, easy to do business with, and easy to partner with.
There is probably no better story to illustrate these concepts than that of Apollo 13. The best plans went sideways early on. Total SNAFU (situation normal all fouled up). NASA didn’t bring Apollo 13 back by putting one guy in the hotseat to do everything. They gathered the best people, figured out what the new mission was (get Apollo 13 back safely), then reverse engineered everything they needed to so they could make the mission successful.
Yes it was hard. And yes, it probably wasn’t pretty much of the time, but they stayed focused, worked the problems, one after another, and damned if they didn’t bring astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert home safely.
The world those astronauts blasted off from was not the same one they returned to. Sure, a lot look the same, but it was different. Everything about the space program changed.
So, too, will our view change in the post-COVID-19 days. Some things will look the same, but we will forever be changed. The seeds of those changes are being sown right now. People are thinking about how their lives will change. And smart business leaders are busy gazing into the not so distant future, trying to anticipate what that world will look like.
Assess your company’s situation and your world. Orient yourself based on maximizing your strengths and minimizing your liabilities. Decide a course of action, then act on it.
Get people behind your efforts. Tell them where you are taking them. Tell them how. And if you don’t know how, ask for their help in figuring it out.
And don’t go it alone. It’s not fun, it’s not efficient, and it’s not the best way. Surround yourself with smart people, hard workers, and like-minded allies.
And maybe, just maybe, the new world that unfolds before you will be a better world than the one you came from.