Over the last few years, we’ve all been told that we are living in exponential times. That exponential change and disruption are upon us. That we must be exponential, at least from time to time, in our capacity to change. While that’s all been true, the coronavirus has really underscored the impact of exponentiality. It has been a lesson in how fast a virus can spread and, in turn, how quickly we can institute and spread behavior change when we need to. It shows that we can fight exponentiality with exponentiality: we can slow the accelerating spread of the virus by exponentially accelerating physical distancing, testing, Macgyvering of respirators and protective gear, and massive economic stimulus. When our normal approaches and practices don’t stand a chance against compounding forces, then different, deliberate, sometimes even extreme measures are required.
This lesson in exponentiality doesn’t just apply to fighting a global pandemic. It is a critical takeaway for leaders to apply to other exponential challenges we face more frequently, like when we realize that a merger is going south or a digital transformation initiative is badly off-track. When top priorities go wrong, they tend to do so exponentially. Confusion gains momentum, spreading faster and wider. Loss of focus and loss of traction accelerates.
Leaders who are masters at rapid course corrections know how to spot the early signals of these downward spirals. They understand the exponential pace at which conditions can worsen, and they know that the key to getting back on track quickly is to fight exponentiality with exponentiality. Specifically, an exponential increase in the variety, number and speed of interactions amongst a carefully chosen mix of people. High-quality, high-volume, high-speed interactions involving many diverse people will quickly generate insights, solve problems, produce well-informed decisions, and put top initiatives back on the right trajectory.
A recent NY Times article shows how two epidemiologists viewed the pandemic early-on.
“We were listening to people…saying, ‘What’s the fuss, it’s just like the flu,’ and ‘There are only 15 cases’… But every epidemiologist knew what was coming inexorably toward us.”
[They started discussing] “what actions to take in the face of exponential growth. Obviously, we need to slow the rate of growth (flatten the curve) through government and individual responses — effectively based on increased testing and heightened social distancing.”
“But in order to accomplish that, we first need to convince people to take this outbreak seriously, which is no small task. It’s as if humans can only think linearly. But for epidemic modelers, exponential growth is the very nature of the beast.”
One epidemiologist “wondered whether the power of exponential growth be turned to a collective advantage.” She said “the answer was yes, but only if we intervene early...That means now.”
To master rapid course corrections, every leader must find the epidemiologist within. That goes something like this:
“Our major initiative is about to be badly off track. We are not aligned. Our plan isn’t working. People have lost momentum. Our timelines are being restated for the third time. If we don’t do something significantly different to change trajectory, our efforts will fail.
Problem is, the people around me haven’t yet had the stark realization that I’ve had. My fellow leaders don’t think the problem is that bad. They’re telling me to set up ‘one-on-ones’ with key stakeholders. But I know that this problem is going to deteriorate exponentially, not linearly. The negative forces are going to start compounding in big ways, soon.
More of the same approaches will not get us back on track. I need to intervene now. I need to engage a requisite variety group of people, and network them so that they are in deep, intense, streamlined dialogue with each other. Otherwise, we won’t get at the heart of what’s truly going wrong, we won’t figure out what we have to do to course-correct, and we certainly won’t align enough people who need to execute.
I need to engage many more people on this – quickly and intensively. And, every one of them counts, because my success in having assembled the right people actually declines exponentially every time one person sends their regrets, or leaves the effort. The impact of going from, say, 42 people to 41 is a decline of 5% in the total number of connections between everyone. Losing 12 people – and retaining 30 of the 42 – is a whopping 50% decline. In other words, my ability to rapidly course correct is fragile. It succeeds by engineering interactions amongst the right group of people, and fails at an exponential rate by losing just a handful of them.”
Indeed, leaders who have mastered rapid course corrections consistently demonstrate the following:
When the pandemic subsides, we have a fundamental choice to make. We can breathe a sigh of relief that this crisis is behind us, and acknowledge that while the world’s response to the pandemic was delayed at first, we then demonstrated that we are capable of responding with astonishing speed – but nevertheless return to our typical linear cadence and somewhat siloed approaches for responding to challenges and seizing opportunities.
Or, we can double down on the key insights that this black swan has uncovered for all of us. When it comes to how we typically think about, engineer and manage interactions, our norms and behaviors flatten the curve of insights, decisions, creativity, innovation, and execution. We can do much better. With the right interactive interventions, you can lead a much faster recovery for your organization. And, over time, if you choose to join those who view interactions as the currency of performance, you will experience outsized returns.
Original article posted on Forbes on April 21, 2020
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