As the COVID-19 pandemic forces world leaders to communicate changes to policy, rules and regulations while in crisis mode, we have observed citizen reactions to what is essentially the biggest disruptive force to society and business in years and one of the most unique in modern times.
The government response is effectively a global transformation program impacting 7.5 billion people and a pretty agile one at that. Just like an organisational transformation or turnaround program responding to a disruptive force, the pandemic response is led by change leaders, tasked with influencing rapid behaviour change as we adapt to social distancing measures and surrounding economic impacts.
In this case, our change leaders are the presidents, prime ministers and heads of state in any given country, along with their state leaders, and with support from international bodies like the World Health Organisation.
While we must scrutinize how well governments responded and learn with the benefit of hindsight, there have been examples of very effective techniques used by these leaders, to achieve significant social and behavioural changes among huge numbers of people.
As rapid behavioural shift is essentially the same target outcome for any organisational change or transformation leader, it is worth asking: what can we learn from our response to the pandemic and from those leading change at a national level?
Here are six insights for leaders trying to change their business, in any situation, as highlighted by the pandemic response:
1. The criticality of data for decision-making and the value of sharing it widely
Leaders receive the latest COVID-19 stats from health experts and analysts then use them for decision-making. The same figures are also released to the media, so we can all understand the threat and subsequent advice, so we understand the situation and act accordingly.
When leading change initiatives it can be powerful to share a similar dashboard openly and regularly with your people, to drive the desired shift in behaviour.
Without data you and your people are susceptible to misguidance from the biased advice of agreeable peers, gutfeel or simple ‘do as I say’ messages. Data is harder to argue with. Just like sales metrics drive sales team behaviour, your change programs should have metrics around adoption, failure rates, customer experience and anything else relevant to your specific change and what it aims to achieve or avoid.
Just as COVID-19 outbreaks have been tracked regionally, down to suburban levels your change metrics should be tracked at a granular business unit or regional level to highlight and mitigate resistance points.
2. The compelling behavioural influence of seeing what is at stake, with clarity:
Our pandemic response reveals that we all have the capacity to change almost instantaneously if the burning platform is compelling enough.
While not always perfect, it has been incredible to see entire nations rapidly adhere to tough lifestyle restrictions dictated by government. I doubt any transformation or turnaround initiative has moved so quickly.
Nations have been minimising unnecessary suffering and avoiding the loss of tens of thousands of lives.
Why should people adapt to your change program? Are you making it crystal clear to your people what the impacts of not changing are, why change is so critical or what will happen if employees don’t change their perspectives and priorities?
As Simon Sinek says “Start with Why” but make sure it is absolutely clear why what you’re doing now, cannot continue.
3. Many leaders have been managing performance via relationship biases and presence, not outcomes
Virtual collaboration tools have been highly effective for 15+ years, yet most of us are apparently amateurs at using them. Pre-pandemic, countless managers avoided the shift to remote working, feeling the need for physical line of sight. This is because they either did not know what their people were working on (over delegation and poor status tracking), didn’t have clear objectives for their team or perhaps they simply got lonely without their team around.
The latter is understandable and face-to-face is invaluable for team building, efficiency and innovation but does your team know and stick to their deliverables, objectives and metrics for the year, the quarter, the project, the week? Or have they been getting sucked into ‘busy work’; email, meetings that drag out and extravagant hallways chats? How do you set goals and track status of achievements and project progress? What consequences are in place to manage underperformance, risks and issues to delivering to your goals?
Leading change requires attention to the scope, status, effort and outcomes your project team and business stakeholders are achieving in the drive to a different future state.
4. People need facts, clarity and context, but they also need care and empathy, to adopt the right mindset and behaviour:
Leaders build trust, confidence and inspire appropriate action when they act decisively and with conviction during crises. It helps us see that there is a plan and urgent resolve in place to return us to better times.
However, we can also experience intense stress and challenging emotional states that are hard to escape without a helping hand. If they aren’t explicitly acknowledged, how do we know our leaders understand what we’re going through? How can we trust them if they don’t know?
Watching the press conferences of many world leaders, citizens have been assured that their Prime Ministers and Presidents know these are difficult times and the recovery won’t be easy. For the most part, when at their best, these leaders’ tone of voice is caring, considered, sombre and empathetic. We are reminded that we’re all in this together.
Transformation programs can create fear, uncertainty and cause tears, with the stress impacting employees and their families. Change leaders must act with similar degrees of care and empathy, as when managing a crisis.
5. Crises reveal what is most important now but can obscure what is important next
During crises, scrutiny of capital investments goes into forensic mode, with many programs put on hold and resources directed to a new set of priorities, usually around resetting strategy, retaining customers, servicing enquiries and minimising operational costs.
However, market leaders know now is the perfect time to shift into gear and develop a competitive advantage by advancing their reinvention while competitors go into defensive mode. Costs may be constrained but they should be minimised where possible then it is time to move on. Allow the organisation to continue technology and operating model changes that drive efficiency, re-shape talent practices and drive culture changes to improve their competitive position while building collective resilience at the same time.
Your business needs these improvements more than ever. Obviously, balance sheet strength is a factor, but business simply cannot cut their way to growth and competitive advantage.
6. Change is a never-ending experience, so try to enjoy it and seek the opportunities in it
The COVID-19 curve may be flattening and restrictions lifting but there could be a second wave with the same, different or worse impacts until a vaccine is discovered, tested and distributed. Then, when we conquer COVID-19, things may never be the same and the ripple of change will continue to yield challenges and opportunities.
New business ventures, innovative organisational practices and investment principles are already emerging and will become standard. All losses, failures and pain are temporary unless we allow them to become suffering, lasting trauma or overwhelm us into standstill.
Change capable cultures are more resilient and have a strong thirst for change.
Sending messages that inspire your people to change and get comfortable with more change in future can build your culture’s change capability. Messages that avoid emotion, create fear or delude people into thinking change will cease at some point, not only destabilise your current initiatives, they reduce your employees’ preparedness for the next one.
Just one change is hitting us now. You must prepare yourself and your people, mentally, strategically and financially for the next and the one after that.
“And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through. You won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what the storm is all about.”
– Haruki Murakami
By Huw Thomas – Principal Consultant, Head of Thought Leadership & Innovation