Sometime after 9/11, the first responders were interviewed about how well all the teams from multiple departments and areas came together for the rescue and the fire. The chief being interviewed pointed to all the training they had done. They had trained on individual events that occurred but never on all the events that came together in the disastrous terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
Three lessons stuck with me from the chief:
- Training matters before a crisis. It takes practice to be ready for the real event.
- Teamwork matters in a crisis. Turf doesn’t.
- Systems matter in crisis.
Training. It ought to go without saying: You can’t train during a crisis; training is scheduled for the ‘just in case’ in the coming months. It also strikes me that we routinely experience smaller, less intense crises in our work, and we need to be ready for those as well as the big ones like 9/11 and COVID 19. Training for and being prepared for the lesser crises are the building blocks for the broader crises. Being ready to handle five people out with a particularly bad year of the ‘regular’ flu or a three-day snowstorm midweek prepares us for working from home today. Giving an hourly worker access to a laptop to work from home because her asthmatic toddler needs nebulizer treatments every hour prepares your team for working from home today. Training in all its forms are the building blocks for responding to all crises – from the smaller everyday ones and those that we either didn’t or possibly couldn’t anticipate.
One last point on training: It isn’t ‘one and done’. Training and practice never stops. Just doing our work every day doesn’t prepare us for the unpleasant surprises. We need to get out of our comfortable, routine spaces and lift our heads out of the daily work, no matter how intense the work is or how busy we are, to prepare for the known and unknown challenges ahead.
Turf. Whether we call them silos or turf is irrelevant. What is relevant is that whatever they are called, they inhibit collaboration and preparedness. If an idea has to be ‘your idea’, then you need to get out of leading. No manager, regardless of seniority – and that includes the president or CEO, is the smartest guy in the room if they think they are. In fact, they are dangerous and a liability to the survival of the organization. In times of crisis, we see exactly how dangerous. In times of crisis, we don’t have time to dance around someone’s ego or pride. What we need are smart people who share, listen and collaborate to “get it right”.
The issue of turf doesn’t reside at the highest levels; it can be seen across some organizations. True, it often begins with the attitude at the top, but it doesn’t reside just in the most senior levels. The issue of turf or silos is further complicated by the efficiency that comes from clarity in function and roles. We often create rules and policies to create clarity, so our managers and colleagues know what is expected of them and for others. The rigidity with which those rules are applied is the problem.
My boss once demanded why I wasn’t challenging a peer. He wanted to know why I seemed to back down when I disagreed with this particular colleague, as I did not with others. His explicit expectation of me to challenge was a reminder that all of us in an organization need to push back, question and suggest to our colleagues AND expect that they will push back, question and suggest in return. If we allow turf or silos to stop the flow of good ideas or to enable bad ideas to be implemented, we will all suffer the consequences. We need each other to become better.
Systems. Crisis demands incredible efficiency. We need technology. We need processes. We need consistency. We need automatic responses. The only way these come together is if we are focused on continuous improvement – and collaboration – all the time. Continuous improvement also means that we focus on not just what’s next but what’s after that and what’s after that. Ray Dalio refers to looking to the second and third consequences in his book Principles. He’s right. It’s not just this decision we are making but what are the potential consequences of this decision? And then what is the potential consequences of those consequences?
Consider the difference in planning when data is used to trigger action that has been discussed in advance. One of my clients defined the three levels of their response to COVID 19:
Level 1: Status quo. Define what is critical and who is critical to core functions. Identify resources and gaps in resources for all those who are and who are not critical to core functions. Set policies for Level 2 & 3 around compensation and time off work.
Level 2: Case in the state. High-risk people or those with family who are high-risk work from home. Work priorities set.
Level 3: Local case identified. Everyone who is not critical to core functions works from home. Work priorities set and adjusted as needed. Support systems set in place.
A lot of work was done at each of those levels. And it was efficient work. Not every question was answered. But the managers could communicate effectively and efficiently based on what was known amongst all the unknowns. Core decisions were clear, expectations were clear. Many questions remain and yet there is clarity and no surprise at each level. The team is prepared and generally ready for what comes next. As importantly, their brains have the capacity to make additional decisions that inevitability will be required. An overwhelming situation is less ‘whelming’ because of the clarity in process and expectation.
This client was able to put this level of planning in place because they had created a culture of continuous improvement, cross-team collaboration, and trust: The foundation of effective systems.
Wrapping up. These are the building blocks of readiness to respond in crisis: Preparation, collaboration (no turfs) and systems. In fact, they are the building blocks of a successful, sustainable organization. Period.
Good leaders enable and build organizations that are ready for the challenges ahead.
Leaders who don’t need to be the smartest guys in the room.
Leaders who know that training is the cornerstone of preparation.
Leaders who demonstrate respect and collaboration.
Leaders who expect and inspire collaboration.
Leaders who don’t tolerate turf-building and silos.
Leaders who focus on continuous improvement.
Leaders who respect and value the people who work at all levels of the organization.
Leaders who stay focused on the purpose of their organization.
May we all strive to be these leaders.