How To Prioritize When The Coronavirus Turns Everything Into Chaos - Part 1

March 30, 2020

By Adam Chapman, EyeForPharma on Mar 21, 2019

How To Prioritize When The Coronavirus Turns Everything Into Chaos - Part 1

Complexity is the defining business and leadership challenge of our time. But it has never felt more urgent than this moment, with the coronavirus upending life and business as we know it. Governments are scrambling to mitigate the effects of the outbreak, and business leaders are rushing to protect their people, their customers, and their companies. For the next few weeks, we’ll be drawing on our deep knowledge base about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems, to offer you insights and advice about how to keep a steady hand on the wheel during the crisis, and how to guide your organization in its transition back to normalcy once the crisis winds down.

We have been studying complexity and helping leaders navigate it for nearly 20 years. While this crisis is absolutely unprecedented, all complex challenges – including this one – are best managed when you understand specific underlying characteristics they all exhibit, and tried-and-true ways to approach them. Today: A look at the genetic code of complexity and how it can be used to identify high-priority themes that need your attention first.

Setting priorities
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A month ago, you knew what your organization’s priorities were. Your leadership team may not have been aligned on how to achieve them, but at least you knew what mattered the most. Now, the coronavirus pandemic - and its impact on your people, customers and business - has plunged companies into chaos. In order to survive this crisis, it’s critical for leaders to figure out what matters most .

In working with corporate, not-for-profit, and government leaders for 20 years, we have discovered that while complex challenges are very different on the surface, they share a common genetic code. When confronting any complex challenge, there are only 23 subject areas that must be addressed to draw order out of disorder. Leadership during the coronavirus crisis is a complex challenge.  

THE GENETIC CODE OF COMPLEX CHALLENGES

When we work with groups, we ask them to identify up to 12 topics that they believe need to be addressed in order to tackle the complex problem at hand. When we studied this, we expected hundreds or thousands of different topics, given the wide variation in the challenges, industries/sectors, geographies and demographics of the groups involved. But to our surprise, the topics they chose fell into just 23 common subject areas. Because of the coincident match in that number to the number of chromosome pairs in the human body, we dubbed these 23 subject areas The Genetic Code of Complex Challenges (and describe this code in detail in Chapter 9 of our book Cracking Complexity).

As an organizational leader during this crisis, trying to keep people buoyed, make great decisions fast, keep an eye on fast-changing and interdependent factors inside and outside the organization, and function in a new remote-work context - these 23 subject areas will help you quickly think through and weigh possible priorities, some that may not have occurred to you yet.

23 Subject areas

USING THE 23 SUBJECT AREAS TO IDENTIFY YOUR PRIORITIES

Given the origin of these 23 subject areas, you can feel confident that your most urgent priorities lie within them. Here’s how to work with your leadership to find them:

  1. Translate each subject area into topics that are relevant to your context
  2. Prioritize these topics based on importance and urgency (see grid for guidance)
  3. Segment highest-priority topics to identify sequence and timelines
  4. Write questions and assign high-variety teams to work on answers

1. TRANSLATE SUBJECT AREAS INTO RELEVANT TOPICS

Using the topic examples in the table above as a starting point, build your own list of important topics in each subject area. For example, under Subject Area 2, Governance, you might list crisis management structure and nimble decision-making.

Keep your topic list as short as possible - some subject areas will be empty, and most others should contain no more than 1 or 2 topics. Coming out of this step, 20-25 topics is fine.

2. PRIORITIZE TOPICS BASED ON IMPACT AND URGENCY

Prune your list of topics by prioritizing them based on impact and urgency. As you rate impact,  assess the potential impact of not addressing that topic. Think about urgency in terms of the timeline in play. Some topics will be very important but the impact won’t be felt for several months; others may not be relatively important, but the time to address them is now.

For example, Governance topics crisis management structure and nimble decision-making are probably both high impact and high urgency, whereas another Governance topic like accountability might be lower urgency because you can attend to that once structures and decision authorities are clear.

Use this thinking to prioritize each topic as illustrated below.

Impact graph

3. SEGMENT YOUR HIGHEST-PRIORITY TOPICS TO IDENTIFY SEQUENCE AND TIMELINES

Using a simple chart like the one shown below, segment the highest-priority topics according to whether they are internally or externally focused, and whether they are primarily grounded in day-to-day operations or have an orientation to the future.

Priority of topics

By sorting each topic into these four quadrants, you can determine sequence (based on immediacy) and timelines (based on how much control you have over the changes and their impact). For example,

  • Crisis management structure and nimble decision-making are both internally focused and have an immediate orientation - tackle and complete these right away.
  • What our brands stand for (from Subject Area 1, Who We Are), is an externally focused topic with an immediate orientation - get started now and monitor the impact of your actions over the coming weeks.
  • Adapt core processes for remote work (from Subject Area 6, How We Work / Core Processes), is internally focused with a future orientation - start making changes immediately to allow for remote work during the crisis, and expect to make longer-term changes that will accommodate a new penchant for remote work after the crisis is over.
  • Digitize all products (From Subject Area 12, Product / Service Innovation), is an externally focused, future oriented topic - start learning and designing during the crisis, while setting deadlines that will extend long after it’s over.

Note that how you sort them today isn’t necessarily how you would sort them during business-as-usual times. For example, Governance might ordinarily be a topic that comes up in the context of transformation, but today, it’s on fire because you need to quickly establish new roles, structures and decision authorities for management during the crisis.

4. ASK QUESTIONS AND WORK ON ANSWERS

Now that you’ve identified your top priorities and have a sense of sequence and timelines, it’s time to put teams together to work on them.

The segmentation you did in step three will help shape your thinking about:

  • Who’s on those teams - based on roles that are focused on the day-to-day (e.g. operational management) versus adaptation over time (e.g. corporate strategy), and those that are focused internally (e.g. HR)  versus market-facing (e.g. Sales and Marketing);
  • What the tasks and timelines are for those teams.

In Part 2, we talk about how to think in greater detail about the teams you will set to work on finding the best answers, and how to ask the right questions to frame their work.

Original article posted in Forbes on March 30, 2020

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