The Key To Decisive Action At Defining Moments Like This One

April 8, 2020

By Adam Chapman, EyeForPharma on Mar 21, 2019

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: Your challenge, your solution.

Plan Creative Class

When you’re at a defining moment like the present crisis, the stakes are high, smart and decisive action is critical, and finding good solutions without sacrificing speed is everything. The need for speed makes it tempting to blindly copy what someone else is doing or advising, or to pull out a playbook that’s worked in the past - and just do it. But complexity defies solutions that don’t fit the place and time. Complexity demands new, custom solutions. Fast.

We, and many other writers and thinkers, have kicked into high gear with advice about how to navigate the coronavirus pandemic and its effects on businesses. But advice isn’t the same as a solution that will work for you. Ultimately, what you do comes down to your unique situation - your leadership team, people, culture, customer set, partners, products, locale, technological infrastructure, and capabilities. You have to think through all the great advice you’re receiving, and translate it into the right solution for your place and time. That’s what it means to be a leader in a crisis situation.

But you mustn’t go it alone. Again, with a need for fast action, it’s tempting to develop and dictate solutions and action plans top-down. That’s way faster (in most cases) than being inclusive. But there are two problems with that approach:

  • You (and the rest of the leadership team) don’t have enough variety to find the best possible solution.
  • And even if you do discover a strong solution and develop the right action plan to implement it, you (and the rest of the leadership team) can’t execute that plan on your own. By leaving others out of the process of creating it, you now have a persuasion campaign and/or resistance in front of you. And who has time for that?

Here’s a review of our advice for developing solutions and action plans in the face of complex challenges. It’s good and it’s proven, but if you’re going to take it, first think about how to adapt it to your reality:

  1. Articulate your challenge statement as a question.
  2. Engage and involve requisite variety in answering the question.
  3. Connect the people who make up your requisite variety group directly together, many-to-many.
  4. Apply high-quality, high-impact collisions.


Let’s go through this with a challenge that will be knocking at your door any day now: How will your organization recover from the damage done by the pandemic and be first out of the gate with traction and momentum when things return to (new) normal?

1. Articulate this challenge as a question

Work with others to pose the right question for your organization. Create it as a leadership team and vet it with a few non-leaders for their perspectives. You might end up with something like this:

“What can we do right now and over the next few months to ensure that when this crisis is behind us, our existing and prospective customers think of us as the most resilient, responsive and highest-value partner they have and/or need?”

2. Engage and involve requisite variety in answering that question

Requisite variety is the right mix of people who collectively cover the range of experiences, expertise, authority, stake, influence (and so on) that is necessary and sufficient to fully answer the question. How can you identify the requisite variety to answer this question? Ask yourself:

  • Who can best represent each level of the hierarchy? Which senior-leaders, directors, managers, supervisors and individual contributors must I include? In this case, you probably need more people who are out working directly with customers and fewer higher-ups - front-liners from the call center and sales (for example) are likely a must.
  • Who should I include to represent the business units, the product lines, and the geographies? Here, it’s best to go for broad coverage - one or two people from each if you can.
  • What functions must be involved? To deal with this question, HR, IT, Legal and Regulatory are likely needed for starters, to contribute on topics related to people, technology, process and policy.
  • What’s the right balance between people deep in the day-to-day operations versus those who focus on the future? Given this question and its immediacy, present operations likely outweigh visionaries and strategists.
  • Who else needs to be there? Think about external parties like supply chain partners, agencies, and even customers. Think about experts who know how to recover from a crisis. And very importantly, think about who the doers will be when it comes to the resulting action plan. Include them now so they have full context and are deeply connected to the plan as co-authors of it.

3. Connect these people many-to-many

Under normal circumstances, you would bring everyone together in-person. But while social distancing is in effect, you need to find a good video conferencing platform to host their discussions. We have written about how to achieve best possible results in video meetings here.

People need to be in conversation directly with each other, so you should split the conversations up into several meetings and intentionally cross-pollinate the people involved. This way, each person will be connected to every other person at least once. Avoid settling for surveys or interviews, which aren’t nearly as engaging as dialogue.

And what are they talking about when they’re connected? Let them tell you; let them set the agenda. Most likely, given the example question above, they will identify topics like these that need discussion:

  • Changes to our value proposition
  • Enhancing our culture, capabilities and leadership
  • Digitizing our products and services
  • Making it easier to work with us
  • Revitalizing our technology infrastructure
  • Addressing supply chain strengths and deficiencies
  • Re-establishing and strengthening our customer relationships
  • And so on.

4. Orchestrate a large number of high-quality, high-impact collisions amongst them

Imagine fierce, honest, timely conversations on topics like those listed above. People intensely engaged as they explore questions like:

  • What did this do to our customers, and what do they need from us most to recover? How could we be of greater value to them during the next crisis?
  • In what ways did our culture improve? How did our culture inhibit our performance during this time? What changes can we institutionalize to amplify our strengths and dampen our weaknesses?
  • What did we learn about our products and services, and how to use digital to enhance value? Are there digital products we need to create or improve?
  • What process barriers and opportunities to improve emerged?
  • Was our technological infrastructure up to par? Where are the areas for improvement that we need to invest in?
  • How did our supply chain hold up? What changes should we make based on what we learned?
  • Which customers were we able to serve, and which did we alienate? How do we deepen these relationships in general?

Imagine the sparks. Imagine the impact on people. Imagine the insights you’ll be able to reap by giving a great question to the right people and equipping them to get to the answers they collectively believe in.

Most importantly, imagine the value of quickly finding answers that were specifically derived for your context, for this crisis, by your own people. That’s the key to decisive action at defining moments like this one.

Original article published on Forbes on April 8, 2020

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