When the year 2020 started, many businesses—including ours—were looking forward to blue skies ahead. Little did we know that a worldwide pandemic would force us to leave our offices, quarantine in our homes, and grapple with a sudden new slate of challenges.
Literally overnight, we had to learn to work, collaborate, and manage remotely, full time. We had to become amateur schoolteachers and chefs to keep our children’s education on track and our families fed.
And we had to buy toilet paper. A lot of toilet paper.
But it can take much less than a deadly virus to rapidly disrupt business-as-usual. It could be a worldwide economic recession, as in 2007-2009. It could be a regulatory change that affects an industry and even threatens its business model. It could be an accident or controversy that damages a company’s reputation or ability to carry out its mission. It could be the loss of a major customer at the worst possible moment.
When faced with a sudden crisis, typically most people’s first response is panic. Despite our best efforts, despite the care with which we run our organisations, something we cannot control—and possibly didn’t foresee—has destroyed our best-laid plans like a bully kicking over a child’s sandcastle on a beach. It’s natural to feel blindsided, hurt, and scared.
To regain a feeling of control, the impulse is to do something. Anything! Just so long as action is taken. Leaders and managers may also feel pressure from their employees to take action, as workers struggle to cope with their own anxieties. What are we going to do, boss?
In times of a sudden crisis, many leaders and managers yield to panic and pressure and take action—even when doing nothing might be the best thing to do.
It’s essential, in such a situation, to resist the impulse to act without thinking, or planning. Strong leadership is never more important than in a crisis. Employees, customers, partners, are all waiting for the same thing in such circumstances: for someone to lead them to a safe place.
Patterns to Help You Manage
But how do you steady your organisation when a crisis hits, and supply that leadership to everyone who depends on you?
Patterns are a language for sharing context-specific working solutions; they are based actions that have worked in real-life situations at real organisations. Many of the patterns from our book Cloud Native Transformation apply to this situation. Here are some examples:
This pattern can help a company change direction when a crisis or even game-changing information is acquired.
In Dynamic Strategy, your organisation continually re-evaluates circumstances as your plans or project move forward. It checks to make sure the relevant products are still in demand and if the chosen technologies, organisational structure, and development processes are still the best for the most successful delivery. You are always monitoring the competition to adjust delivery planning and release optimal functionality to maximise market impact.
When hard times hit, an organisation’s real values are exposed under the pressure. When those values are clearly stated and prioritised, as well as fully internalised across the company, people have the basis for making day-to-day decisions without needing to seek consent or permission/approval. That allows you to move fast to meet the moment.
To get everyone on board, create an ordered list of clearly stated values to simplify decision making and guide behavior in an uncertain environment.
- Identify the company’s values: What is important to us?
- Formulate these simply and clearly.
- Rank these values in order of importance.
- Incorporate this value hierarchy into the company’s culture and identity by broadcasting it across the organisation.
A crisis may require new approaches to the work an organisation does. A company skilled at acquiring information, creating insight, and transferring knowledge can tolerate risk with confidence and solve difficult problems through experimentation and innovation.
Take an honest look at your current culture. Build in the willingness to accept ambiguity and risk as part of your daily organisational process. Rather than demanding a full, detailed plan with clear estimation upfront, embrace Dynamic Strategy and help teams to structure effective experiments. Make sure there is enough Psychological Safety—an environment where everyone can share ideas and speak up without facing negative consequences—to allow people to take risks.
- Leaders need to lead by example and show everyone that it’s safe to try new things, even if they fail.
- Consider your company’s current relationship to risk and change. Does experimentation require permission? Is failure considered automatically ‘bad’?
- Treat change as an opportunity rather than a cause for anxiety.
This pattern helps to get the maximum from a team in uncertain situations. If innovation is needed—and it certainly is in a crisis—then an organisation’s teams need the open-ended freedom to experiment their way to solutions without pressure for delivering specific results on a set schedule—and the freedom to sometimes fail along the way
To get there, manage the teams responsible for innovation by stating a purpose or desired outcome, which gives them a direction toward which they will be creating new ideas. The team will require time, funding, and other resources to support its work, safety to fail, and autonomy to explore. Team dynamics will be more important than deadlines and delivery management.
While many teams within the organisation can be focused on delivering the core business product, at least one should be in charge of innovation. Because its job is to investigate likely next steps for the company’s near future, it needs to work differently than the teams executing processes in the existing system.
- Psychological Safety is essential for creativity to flourish.
- The purpose needs to be practical and achievable.
- Creative teams should be dedicated to innovation and have no regular delivery tasks.
- Designate an Innovation Champion, a person (or more than one) who is responsible for ushering projects that prove to be of value toward production.
Using public cloud is usually cheaper and easier to maintain remotely, and provides enormous flexibility in times when the use of the online systems may change significantly.
Hand over the management of hardware and rent capacity from public-cloud vendors like Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and similar, instead of owning, managing, and creating full automation for infrastructure.
- Rely on full automation.
- Use APIs to connect with public cloud.
During the start of the COVID-19 crisis, companies had to move to working through remote teams—many for the first time—nearly overnight. Having such capabilities already saves precious time in a crisis, especially a fast-moving one.
If teams must be distributed, whether across a city or a continent, build in regular in- person retreats/work sessions as well as robust channels for close and free-flowing communication, to facilitate more open-ended and collaborative work.
Put programs in place to connect remote teams and bring them together in every way possible, both physically and virtually.
- Hold regularly scheduled in-person team retreats/gatherings/offsite work sessions. In the end, there is no real substitute for personal interaction, sharing a meal, etc.
- Open multiple channels of communication, using tools like Slack to keep teams in constant and fluent contact.
- Make use of other tools, like video conferencing and remote whiteboarding, to keep members connected and working closely.
- If possible, don’t distribute a team until it is already mature and has created strong internal connections.
These patterns can form the basis of any organisation’s response to a crisis. But there are many other patterns that are more relevant for a fast-developing crisis. See our e-book, Cloud Native Patterns to Help You Manage in a Crisis, a more comprehensive set of patterns that are especially relevant to those situations.