In times of grave uncertainty, organisations find themselves in a situation that spells both danger and opportunity.
It is dangerous to go into a binary mode- fight or flight, do or not do, decide or not decide, now or never. Gripped by survival anxiety, organisational leaders want to stamp their presence on the proceedings. There is comfort in poring over spreadsheets and calculations and being able to make changes with a few keyboard clicks. They are making changes on the map and the map is not the territory.
Where is the opportunity? The opportunity lies in reimagining things anew because you are forced by the turn of circumstances to return to the basics, the fundamentals. When the blueprint is taken off the dusty shelf and revisited on the decision-making table, you find yourself more willing and able to make changes in the very design and workflow of the organisation. A water reservoir in times of severe drought year can go through a complete overhaul because the water levels are so low. A dilapidated bridge on a busy national highway can be dismantled because of a lockdown. The opportunity is in expanding the change agenda and going through with, not only the forced-upon changes, but also the ones you believed to be game-changers, but were simply too hesitant to usher in during the steady and predictable times.
If organisational leaders have to capitalise on the situation, what do they need to do?
Acknowledge the danger of not doing anything, but resist the pull of the binary mode. Operating in a binary mode is relatively easier because you crystallise the either or choices in front of you and resolve the uncertainty in your head. You break free of the tension and experience momentary relief.
To absorb the tension for a longer time is more challenging, indeed nerve-wracking. But thats what the doctors and soldiers do so well. When a military unit suddenly comes under fire in the enemy territory, the first thing it does is unleash covering fire till it to finds a safe place to take cover. Then, the unit conserves its ammunition, takes stock of the situation, and plans its next manouever. That is absorbing the tension. Similarly, doctors on examining a patient in an SOS situation first stabilise the vital parameters. Then, they take a pause and revisit all their options.
Organisational leaders need to learn how to ensure mission-critical continuity, and then insert an opportunistic pause. They need to take an outside-in view of the organisation, look at the organisation as a whole. Become generalists who see all the parts and how they interact to make the whole. Suppress their specialist instincts that makes them want to safeguard and reinforce their turf in the belief that this specialist firepower will be called upon to save the day. For a start, if they manage to do all of this, they would have a better handle on the situation.