Creating success from a crisis

By Benjamin Taylor | 29 April 2020

COVID-19 has been described as a ‘black swan’ event. It’s certainly dramatic, unprecedented, potentially overwhelming and likely to bring sweeping changes in the short- and long-term. But it is not a black swan event.

It has also been described as the essence, the apotheosis, of the management talk about a world that is ‘VUCA’ (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous). But it is not as complex as we think.

None of this diminishes the challenges or the impact. It seems clear now that we have had the earthquake. Now comes the tsunami and what will be many subsequent waves of disruption, pain, cost and, tragically, death. Each of these waves might also trigger massive changes in our systems.

But let’s be clear – the basic learning about COVID-19 was already available to us from a series of well-rehearsed scenario plans and exercises over the last 20 years or more.

It’s not a black swan event because it was easy to predict, and the probability was calculable. And while we might argue that the ramifications meet the VUCA definition (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) – or, more realistically, Rafael Ramirez’s TUNA alternative (turbulent, uncertain, novel, and ambiguous) – the challenges facing us right now are technical and about expertise, volume, scale, planning and acting.

Either way, the we must capture the learning now in order to act more effectively so we can be better prepared for the truly complex ramifications for the future.

Amazing things are happening now. Both local government and community are mobilising effectively and dynamically to aid individuals and communities.

Work/life integration has been thrust upon us and home working is now a reality we are learning to deal with.

As one consultant I spoke to, who achieved more on social care and health integration between Tuesday and Friday the week before Easter than previously in his 20-year career, said: ‘What used to be considered impossible is now not only possible, it happened yesterday’.

The tensions are now emerging too, heightened by the crisis. Some community groups are echoing former US president Ronald Reagan’s sentiment: ‘The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the Government, and I’m here to help’.

Domestic abuse calls to a national hotline are up 25% and visits to the website, 150%. Child abuse reporting is significantly down, leading to concerns about lack of triggers for action and support. One local authority very nearly sent pressured staff, many with kids at home, bureaucratic information on how to establish their working-from-home office complete with separate space, desk height, etc.

So how can we learn now, when all our effort is heads down fire-fighting? Here are four tips:

1–Spread the activity – give quicker and crisper boundaries and discretion to all teams, enabling them to get on and do, with massive levels of communication to update these protocols daily, based on feedback. And make sure every team is building-in the learning loops.

2–Harvest the learning daily, or even more often – make sure you institute ‘check-in’, ‘check-out’ (how are people doing and what’s happening for them), and some form of ‘after action review’ or retrospective – ‘what went well, what could go better next time, what was a surprise, how can we work better together’ – and have people listen to the stories at the end of the day, which contain rich learning.

3–Have people explicitly think about triple loop learning – ‘how can we act better to achieve our goals’, ‘how can we rethink or reframe our goals’, and ‘what are we learning about our own identity, our mandate and purpose’. Don’t get caught by target fixation (hitting the target but missing the point), but remain open to learning. Think of the ‘cocooned people’ who are receiving inappropriate food parcels from three different sources. Think of the community volunteers being asked if they can be trusted to deliver medicines, when they have been keeping their neighbours alive for weeks.

4–Keep in mind that there are ‘five worlds’ in our organisations (as a simplification), and the way we understand the world is different in each of these.

  •  In citizen world, people just try to live their lives as they want to.
  •  In service world, we try to translate needs and demands into concrete, manageable, replicable things to deliver – and use pragmatism to balance the infinite demands and their complexity with finite resources.
  • In management world, we try to hold things together and get a view of the whole.
  • In political or leadership world, we set the tone and culture, define our overall identity and purpose.

These worlds will never share the same understanding and view completely – but if we all work regularly in the world of learning and change, the effectiveness of each of these worlds and their relationships with each other, will improve.

Finally, if we can build the learning practices, ensure we are having honest, powerful conversations with each other, and ensure everyone knows – and can renegotiate – their freedom to act, then we will start to learn.

If we understand that our behaviour, the systems we create and the symbolism we use to create emotional reactions in our teams, partners and citizens will generate effective action or mitigate against it, we will shape a positive culture.

And if we establish what our purpose is in this crisis, through continual learning and shaping, we can measure and drive towards doing what really matters.

This learning will shape a better response now and set the scene for a better world, even as we suffer the tsunami and its aftershocks.

Benjamin Taylor is chief executive of the Public Sector Transformation Academy

The days after - creating a new learning community

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