Responding to the COVID-19 Crisis: Laying Resilient Foundations for the Future

COVID-19 is one of the most significant challenges the global economy has faced in generations. No business has been unaffected. Some have battled a collapse in revenues, others an unprecedented spike in demand. All have been adapting to the challenges of working remotely for an extended period, and a profoundly uncertain future. Many countries are now beginning to soften lockdown rules as infection rates reduce. As a result, businesses want to determine their ‘new future’.

That’s both understandable and necessary. However, in addition to outlining a future roadmap, CEOs need to complete two other tasks.

First, whatever else the future brings, businesses will need to satisfy a demand for greater resilience. There is a huge amount they can learn from their response to COVID-19 and these lessons need to be systematically explored.

Second, while many countries are approaching ‘post-peak’, public health agencies warn consistently of the possibility of a second wave of infections, which may require rapid re-introduction of restriction measures to ensure the health and safety of staff and customers. Businesses need to ensure that the response structures they have used to date – some of which were established in haste – are fit for a potentially challenging period ahead.

Both warrant brief exploration.

How resilient were we?

Before we talked about resilient businesses, we used to talk about ‘high-reliability organisations’. That is those organisations for which things, statistically at least, rarely went wrong. Researchers discovered that such businesses had many characteristics. However, one of them was intellectual curiosity about their organisation; a desire to know what they don’t know.

The initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic provides an opportunity for organisations to learn more about their organisation’s resilience.  And, in doing so, lay the foundations for the resilience needed for the future.

CEOs need to direct resources to explore the impact COVID-19 had on critical areas of their business, namely, people, supply, demand, financing and operations across the rising peak and peak of the pandemic.  In responding to the impacts in these areas what robustness was demonstrated by their business? What system redundancy (e.g. in the supply chain) was leveraged to increase reliability? And finally, what levels of resourcefulness were deployed?

Having examined these impact areas, CEOs need to ensure they assess how some of the key pillars of resilience stood up to the threat of COVID-19. Did the leadership respond effectively and empathetically to staff concerns, was the culture supportive and did the governance and response structures imposed work?

Resources dedicated to this will reveal a trove of information which will lay the foundation for the resilience strategies that will be demanded of organisations in the years to come.

Not only that, but it will also help organisations ensure they are well-positioned for the months ahead.

Agility and discipline will be critical to mapping a path to the future

Ahead of COVID-19, most large businesses had crisis management protocols. And, some had ‘pandemic preparedness’ plans.

Many of those frameworks have been activated. However, these plans were typically informed by the earlier outbreaks of H1N1 Swine Flu or MERs or SARs. Few envisaged COVID-19’s global and deep humanitarian impact.

Some organisations chose to rely on ad-hoc initiatives designed to supplement business-as-usual command structures.

With an uncertain road ahead, CEOs should seize the moment to ask whether they have four elements of an effective response structure in place and what, if any changes, need to be made to give them the disciplined agility they will need as they chart a path through the coming weeks and into their ‘new normal’.

  1. Situational awareness

Organisations prefer to make decisions slowly having considered tested data against known variables. But, COVID-19 could take fluid and unpredictable turns. Facts will be hard to verify and information will change. Yet decisions may need to be made swiftly.

Now is the time for organisations to reflect on where they get their information and how it is filtered into decision making structures and when it is considered and acted on.

Those who are doing this effectively will be sourcing information from government and public health bodies, industry groups and regulators, supply chains, customers and staff.

A disciplined approach to listening, synthesising and responding to changing information will continue to be essential to navigating the operational and strategic decisions that lie ahead. As well as to give staff and customers the assurances they deserve and will need.

  1. Objectives and priorities

At the pandemic’s outset, most organisations’ priority was protecting their people and customers. Many went on to adopt a principles-based approach. Some focused on a desire to play their part in the societal response, and many have kept minimising headcount reductions as a core principle.

A new balance now needs to be found. CEOs need to ensure that they take caution to not lose sight of the strategic north stars they originally set – many of which remain relevant – while at the same time being able to crisply articulate objectives and priorities which are forward-looking. In doing so, they need to ensure they manage the Achilles heel of many leaders in a crisis; optimism bias. Many of the variables of COVID-19 lie outside boardroom control.

  1. Clarity of mission

COVID-19 has for most organisations demanded a range of cross-functional workstreams to be established.

But, many such teams were established in haste. As a result, in some cases, projects collided and work duplicated. Now is the moment for CEOs to assess the architecture of the response, ensure that teams are fit for purpose and each has a clearly defined brief.

Beautifully written terms of reference aren’t necessary. But the clarity of mission for teams at all levels is.

  1. Discipline in execution

No organisation is perfect. Even in business-as-usual, the complexity of many organisations makes getting things done – and proving they’ve been done – a Herculean task.

At this stage of the pandemic’s life cycle, two things are becoming apparent. Many organisations are flexing the cadence of meetings through which information, decisions and actions flow through their organisation. Generally, their frequency is being reduced. CEOs need to be alert to the need to step up the pace once again in the face of changing circumstances.

In addition to this, as cash becomes constrained, difficult decisions on divisive issues including dividends and supply chain reconfiguration. As a result, lines are being drawn as opposing stakeholder expectations emerge. Care and attention to the recording of who made decisions, when, where and why will need to be given as the risk of litigation, sadly, will grow. CEOs need to be watchful as the esprit de corps which has underpinned our societal response to this unprecedented crisis may give way to contractual self-protection.

The future will be different: prepare now

It is motivating and necessary for leaders to want to lead their organisation into a post-COVID-19 world and examine the opportunities it may bring. However, tackling these two tasks will help ensure that the future is built on solid foundations.

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