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Operational Soundness During Uncertain Times

Glen Scott, Chief Operating Officer

Diane Coutu, in her article on “How Resilience Works” (Coutu, 2017), identifies three overlapping characteristics of resilient people; and, by extension, resilient organizations. Two of the three characteristics are:

  1. A staunch acceptance of reality
  2. An uncanny ability to improvise

I point these out because they are key concepts to keep at the forefront of your mind when dealing with any kind of crisis that creates uncertainty in our normal organizational activities, such as that which we have experienced during this COVID-19 pandemic. 

A staunch acceptance of reality

When a crisis hits, there are two assumptions that can easily overtake our thoughts and cause responses that can be damaging. The first is to assume that everything is crashing and the only thing to do is immediately begin cutting to salvage anything you possibly can, while you still can. The other end of the spectrum is to assume all is rosy, there is nothing to worry about, and remain solidly focused on the path you had previously drawn. 

You can almost always find information in today’s media frenzy to support either of these two polar opposite positions. However, the reality for your organization probably does not rest on either of these opposites, but somewhere along the line in-between. The important thing is to find YOUR organization’s reality in the current situation and take appropriate action. Here are some action steps that can help you find and manage in your reality.

  1. Clearly define all of your stakeholders. This includes your customers/clients, vendors, lenders, investors and your employees.
  2. Identify how each of these stakeholders are impacted. Understanding how they are impacted helps you to understand how your operations will be impacted. For your customers and clients, understand how their business is impacted and how does that impact what they need from your organization or their ability to continue to pay. Each may be affected differently. Similarly, will your vendors continue to provide their goods and services as they have, or do you need to adjust? How does this impact your lenders and their ability to continue to provide the financial support you need through this time? The same is true with your investors. With employees, it is often emotional. How has this impacted them personally, or how will it potentially impact them? What are their fears about the security of your business? Remember, their financial security is based on the success of your organization as much as your own. They will experience fears about their own future as well.
  3. To the best of your ability, quantify both the risk and opportunity in the current environment. In most cases you will find your customers are impacted in different ways and to different degrees. Some may even experience growth opportunities. What about other customers that you might be able to service that you couldn’t before? Understanding this will help you support them through this time. Remember, how your customers and vendors do during this time will directly impact your own company’s survival, so helping them also helps you.
  4. Find a good source of reliable information. As I said earlier, you can find information in today’s world of fast and unsubstantiated media that will support both ends of the spectrum and everything in-between. Find a reliable source that has well documented information that can help you make educated decisions and tune out the rest of the noise, because that is what it is: noise that can distract from what you need to be focused on doing.
  5. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Whatever the current pace is with your communication, increase it. My suggestion is that you should create formal daily communications during this time if you don’t already have them. There is always a lot of fear-based emotion during these times. You need to be a rational and calming voice as you lead forward. Authentic communication is important now more than ever. If you are authentic about the current situation, and provide a vision for moving forward, they will join the fight. It is better to have bad news than no news and have to guess. And, you don’t want them to be guessing, because they will invariably create a story in their head that is worse than the reality.

As leaders, it is just as easy for us to fall into a reality that is driven by the emotion of the moment. This can mean going doomsday or putting our head in the sand that paints a rosier than reality picture. We can only lead forward effectively and create the best outcomes when we start with a clear and realistic view of the current moment. Only then can we improvise and build something better as we move forward.

An Uncanny Ability to Improvise

If we start with a clear understanding of the current reality by doing the things provided above, we can begin to pivot towards a new normal that may take us to new opportunities we didn’t see before. There are many advances in history that occurred during times of crisis. If we try to force the current reality to fit our “business as usual”, we will create a lot of frustration for ourselves and others, and that is when the staunch reality may end up biting us back hard.

Chances are you have built a strategy for the growth of your operations that is well planned and systematic in its approach. It is top down, starting with a long-term growth strategy that drills down into daily tactics and activities. If this is the case, it may be time to turn it on its head. Don’t trash it, but you may need to hit the pause button. 

More than ever, it’s a time to focus on the moment. Let’s get through the current challenges today and see where this week and month are taking us. Rather than your daily actions being driven by your long-term plan, your daily actions may be actually driven by surviving today, and then tomorrow, and the next. And, from that, something different may appear.

You may discover, as you take a good long look at the current staunch reality, that your “business as usual” really is significantly disrupted, or even unable to continue in its current state. If this is the case, or even if it isn’t, it is time to keep your eyes open and look to see what is happening around you. How can you contribute value to the new normal? There are a lot of success stories involving this: alcohol dispensaries that started making hand sanitizer, restaurants that started delivering or providing pick up options, automakers that started building ventilators, and fitness coaches that started providing classes online. I have talked with many organizational leaders that have discovered unexpected productivity from workers that were forced to work remotely.

The point is, the future economy may not look the same as it did before. In fact, it almost certainly won’t because those who are willing to improvise through this time are in the process of creating something different that may last a long time. So, you can either sit and wait for it get “get back to normal,” and be frustrated in the process; or, you can be a part of creating something different that moves us forward.

Which leads me to the third characteristic of resilient people provided by Diane Coutu: A deep belief that life is meaningful and value driven.

Whatever you did prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, or any other crisis that may come along, created value for someone that filled a need. You did it through the knowledge and skills possessed by you and the team you have created. The need for that knowledge and skill has not gone away. But what you use it for, or how you deliver it to those who are in need of it, may look different.

Hold true to the belief that there is value in the skills and knowledge you and your team provide, and then go out and be prepared to pivot by discovering how to deliver this value into today’s new normal. If you can do this, you can come out on the other side stronger than you were going in. 

Much of this is what operations is really all about: Utilizing our skills and knowledge to deliver value to the communities we service in the most effective way. A crisis of any kind forces us to move more quickly towards something new that might possibly, when history evaluates, be better than what we had before if we are willing to lean in and adjust to a different way of delivering our value proposition. I encourage us all to go forward into this reality with eyes wide open to the situation we are living in with a willingness to improvise, and I believe we will all be better for it when things begin to stabilize once again. 

Reference:

Coutu, D. (2017). How resilience works; in, Resilience by Harvard Business Review Press. Harvard Business Review Publishing Corporation: Boston, MA

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Kylee Nawahine
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