Disruption, Agility and Resilience in a Pandemic

LBS Insight

Disruption, Agility and Resilience in a Pandemic

Last week, I was privileged to have joined the LBS Conversations panel where I shared thoughts on Leadership, Disruption, Agility and Resilience in the context of the ongoing global pandemic and ensuing crisis, to participants numbering more than 2000.

I started with the story of a friend who lives in Lagos but has a farm in Ogun State. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, he visited his farm several times a week, but three weeks into the lockdown, he has been unable to do this. He has foresight and has always paid attention to making his workers comfortable. He built a decent residential facility on the farm where workers could stay if they had to work over a prolonged period. This facility now comes handy during the lockdown as workers can keep operations active on the farm while he monitors and appraises over video calls. Not only is this an agile response to the disruption, but the practice can also be sustained after the crisis, thus allowing him to invest in other value-adding and beneficial pursuits. Resilience is the ability to rebound in terms of delivery and performance. 

I contextualised what is happening to highlight the urgency and imperative of the need for agility and resilience as follows. We have had global pandemics before. There was the Spanish Flu in 1918 and quite a few before then. This is all happening in a compressed time frame. It is global and leading to drastic and restrictive proclamations by governments at various levels. We have all seen eerie photographs of empty streets and places of worship that were unimaginable before now. It is all happening in the full view of everybody, thanks to the media and a hyperactive social media propelled by the fertile mind of people.

We are having to make many adjustments and changes in almost every aspect of our personal and work life, all happening within this compressed time frame. We are making changes in our work patterns and adjustments to home–work domain boundaries. Changes in the needs of customers/clients are placing new demands on what they require of us and how we deliver to them. We also have to adjust to the ways our suppliers now deliver to us, among others.

We may be finding out that we were not quite prepared for many of these changes and so may feel vulnerable. Hopefully, we are also discovering hidden capabilities, and we are now drawing on them. Expectations of us as individuals and as organisations are changing as we come under closer scrutiny by customers, clients, managers, subordinates and society.

Here is the challenge. The instinct would be to focus on the noisiest alarms and red lights flashing urgent signals. These are flashing only because they were programmed to indicate deviations from normal operating conditions. By following such signals, we could miss more important messages in terms of unexpected opportunities or unprecedented vulnerabilities that could have a potentially more significant impact. There are emerging and escalating risks that the current situation would begin to expose, and we must be alert to these and track them closely. 

We have had national crises that have had a significant impact on economic activities before, but none of them has been so dire. What we are going through today is different in scope and in scale. We all seem to have more questions than answers at the moment. At a time like this, no one is an expert in much. What we need more than experts and experience is the ability to ask questions that challenge even our most strongly held opinions.

Here are some questions to ask and seek answers to, if we are to build resilience and agility. What are the consequences of doing things we have never done before? 

  • Would we have to wean ourselves of these things or would we need to continue to do, grow and strengthen them?
  • What bureaucratic constraints have we relaxed that we do not have to reintroduce?
  • What is constraining us particularly at this time? Now is the time to begin to think of what we would need to do to free ourselves from such constraints.
  • Are there supply sources, customers or distribution channels that we have been too dependent on that made us vulnerable? How do we spread risks? A company discovered that one customer accounted for 60% of its output and is now struggling as this customer was particularly hit because it was itself heavily dependent on the importation of a critical component required for its production from China. This may not be the time to succumb to the instinct to cut constantly. When you cut, what are you investing in? If you can’t find what to invest in, you are probably not looking hard enough. The company described here can certainly not be thinking of cutting without investing in diversifying its customer base and embarking on supplier development, respectively.
  • The question of downsizing staff has also been raised. Is your organisation’s vulnerability arising because you have too many employees or because you have too little innovative ideas to stay strong? Making employee layoff a first option raises some questions. What does the action signal to those who remain in the organisation? Are they apprehensive or persistent in their commitment? It may be time to discuss fresh possibilities on coping and resilience with staff. You might just discover you have been sitting on a huge reserve of intellectual capital you have never mined. 
  • What are others doing – within and outside your industry? Your real competitors may not be selling and offering the same products and services as you. So, if customers are coping without you or what you currently offer, who or what is filling that need? Are they likely to come back? Why should they?

 We have all found ourselves in a firefighting mode. We must do the firefighting that is required to ensure survival but my colleague, Professor Wale Ajai alluded to keeping an equal focus on the future, especially how current actions can constrain and liberate us in that future. Here is a situation in which we cannot make a choice between firefighting to stay alive and taking decisions to assure our future. Either/or decisions will not cut it. We need to develop an and/and mindset—paradox thinking and decision-making rather than trade-off choices.

By the same token, we are in a situation in which we cannot take our eyes off the internal context of our organisations even as we keep an eye on external happenings that pose threats. There are pre-existing conditions that would be aggravated and can no longer be left in the backburner. Corridor talks – those unspoken conversations we are all having with nobody verbalising them, those things that may have challenged trust in the workplace may be finding their ways into the room – web conversations – now that there are no corridors. We need to develop keen ears for them, log them and learn to speak about them. Other hidden fault-lines in our teams like asymmetric information among team members and other covert conflicts will be aggravated. When they surface is the best time to address them. Paradoxically, the unsettled climate presents unique opportunities to repair and heal fractured relationships.

There is an opportunity to learn and deliberately build capability to respond and not merely react. A few other things to consider and explore are:

  • What regulations are being relaxed that we can leverage and advocate to be retained? What reliefs can we push for?
  • What internal policies must be changed or adjusted? = Addressing one has implications for other areas and could awaken a dormant giant. I call this the reflux effect. Always monitor the effect of any policy change to be sure it is addressing the issue it is meant to address and has not led to undesirable effects in other areas.
  • Are you doing work where it is most effective? If you have operations in different geographies, you are likely forced to take the expedient path of empowering your units to merely comply with national government proclamations in ways that are disparate. But then for the integrity of the whole, we must always find ways to pull all of these together, learn from them, stretch possibilities and engage in cross-functional and cross-border conversations. So are you thinking of withdrawing such flexibility? Why? Or would you seek to reinforce this? You may, however, need to build capability in far-flung nodes and at customer interface points and establish more robust mechanisms for coordination to ensure the integrity of the whole without undermining agility and responsiveness.

A small scale employer, during this crisis, asked if staff salaries should be cut now that they are working from home. This raises a few questions. What do they currently earn? Are employees paid for attendance or performance? How does this employer measure performance? It turns out that all he was measuring was attendance more than what individuals delivered. It was an eye-opener for this employer. What do we measure now that we refer to as performance that we didn’t measure before? If they are important now, maybe they will always be, and we should institutionalise these. But then, what are the implications for our culture, corporate values, Employee Value Proposition and the kind of talent we should be attracting?

Organisations need committed people, not merely compliant people, so recruitment processes must come under scrutiny. What type of people do we require? Problem solvers who are always asking why or compliant people who just want to be told what to do so that they can do it efficiently. The latter does not actually need to understand why because others have to worry about that. So we have to bring our performance management and our recruitment processes under closer scrutiny than we probably did before. What is performance, and how do we measure it now? How can we do these more effectively? What did we typically look out for in people we sought to recruit? 

For effective team working, especially as we are likely to be working more in virtual teams than ever before, we need to develop and continuously review our accountability matrices – who is accountable for an outcome? Who is responsible for different deliverables? Who needs to know and be kept informed, in the line of decision making or other areas?

Here is a final thought. It might not be a bad idea to consider designating a learning officer to document and codify all of these tactical and seemingly uncoordinated responses as we firefight. This is because the people on the frontline making things happen may not be able to track what they are doing in real-time. We can then review these periodically to understand the consequences of these changes and adjustments as well as their implications. What do we want to retain and build on, and what would we want to end and why? Before we decide to stop any practice that served us well in this period, we must be sure it is not out of a mere desire to return to doing things as normal. We may find out that normalising the abnormal is the better way to go.

Dr Akin Oparison teaches Human Resource Management at Lagos Business School and has over 25 years of management and leadership experience in blue-chip multinational companies.

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