Crisis management or new paradigm

By | November 3, 2020

Another week and another set of coronavirus restrictions to respond to. What can we do, what has to stop? Who’s on furlough? Who’s self-isolating? Another round of remodelling the cash flow, revising the budget, briefing the staff and communicating key messages to wider stakeholders.

How many times has your charity been around this loop since March? Are staff exhausted? Are systems and processes are held together with sticky tape? Has progress on organisational priorities given way to crisis management?

But that’s ok, isn’t it? It is a crisis and it’s only until the virus is over, isn’t it? With echoes from the late Dame Vera Lynn of ‘we’ll meet again’, Facebook friends posting what they’ll do once restrictions have lifted and politicians signalling that things will soon be back to normal if we can just get through this next lockdown. An assumption that we will - at some point - be back to 'normal'.

In reality the ramifications of COVID are likely with us for a generation. Whether that is the virus itself, the financial implications, the new ways of working or travel, the psychological or community fallout. Good or bad. Or just different. We face a new paradigm.

Is it more helpful to adjust from the mindset let's get over this to let's accept this? Longing for the day we can all ditch the facemasks and get back to the office, whilst rushing from one crisis meeting on Zoom to the next, is not sustainable.

World Mental Health Day was recently used to raise concerns about the well-being of the global population. Much of this related to dealing with constant change and uncertainty - both at work and in our personal lives. How can we start to understand where we are in the change process - moving from what our plans were to what they need to be now. For me much of this is familiar from both work at Red Cross and in leading large organisational change processes. How to let go of what was and move into what now.

Emotional impact

Learning from international disaster response, this diagram shows the emotional impact of a major disaster and how long it takes to recover. Some of these characteristics may be recognisable in your organisation: the initial heroic efforts, the honeymoon and disillusionment that comes with the dawning reality that this is longer and harder than first expected. Do you recognise the emotional high and lows within your organisation’s workforce?

Perhaps the key question now is: are you still playing the crisis ‘game’, or have you adjusted to a new paradigm? Given where your organisation is now – and what you know about the future – what are your short, medium and long-term strategic options? Not suggesting that all organisations can be saved or that jobs will be secure – clearly they will not; but moving from crisis management mode to the new reality could provide the focus required to manage the situation and protect emotional wellbeing.

International Journal of Human Resource Studies ISSN 2162-3058 2014, Vol. 4, No. 1

Organisational lifecycle

Also consider the basic organisational lifecycle model. Where was your organisation before the pandemic hit? If it was in decline before the pandemic, then it might feel like it’s in free-fall now. Organisations in entrepreneurial, renewal and growth mindsets before the pandemic may be sufficiently nimble and resilient to cope with shifting sands. Organisations without an understanding of their lifecycle position, their strategy or the performance of its components may feel like passengers of the pandemic - especially if revenue streams have been badly hit.

Adopting the new paradigm does not mean things will be plain sailing or that problems will go away. This is a hideously tough time for organisations. Leaders will still be managing crisis points and rapidly responding to opportunities and threats – but within the new paradigm organisations will be designed to facilitate this. Systems, processes and decision-making frameworks can be modelled to provide timely information and targeted resource allocation. Priorities can be re-focussed, and a strong balance of survival, impact and development can be identified.

When considering the ‘new paradigm’ strategy these questions might help:

  • What battles were you fighting before the pandemic? These have probably not gone away. Under-performing products and revenue streams, political and environmental barriers, internal squabbling. Perhaps the pandemic galvanised the organisation against the common enemy, but otherwise the pre-existing issues will probably be hampering your response and need to be addressed.
  • How relevant is your existing strategy? You don’t necessarily need to throw the strategy you were working to out. The outcomes you intended to achieve are most likely still relevant, perhaps even more so. But your capacity to achieve all the priorities, in the same timeframe, is likely to be limited. What elements of impact are non-negotiable? What can you pause for a year? What can you pause for longer?
  • Are your systems and structures helping your response? What did you stop doing when lockdown began? Which internal processes were circumvented to act more quickly? Is this working or have important things been lost? Are you replicating old structures, just in new formats? Do you have all the same meetings, but now on video conference? It is working? Are there better ways to engage people? Which essential processes are too slow or causing barriers?
  • Do you have a viable ‘product’ that will withstand uncertain times? Is the need still there? Are the revenue streams still there? What are the outcomes you aim to achieve? Can these be delivered in any other way? By your organisation? By others? Have you consulted beneficiaries? What do they need, and what of this can your organisation provide? What can be repurposed? Are there other activities to drive both impact and income?
  • Are the right people doing the right things? Irrespective of their role before the pandemic, does your organisation have the people with the right talents leading the right activity streams? Has devolved responsibility been used effectively? Have working groups been used effectively? Have people been brought in to fill skills deficits? Does the wider workforce know the new priorities and how they can contribute?
  • How long will the money last? Do you have a good understanding of your organisation’s cash flow and long-term income and expenditure? How has your income generation pipeline been affected? When will you need to make expenditure cuts? What are the trigger points? (i.e. we will need to make X savings when projected income becomes Y.) Do you understand the terms of your contracts and commitments? How long will it take to stop doing something? What are the financial implications for terminating contracts?

What do we know?

With the new paradigm there are a few differences that we know (or can have a good guess at) that should be factored into immediate to medium term strategic planning, these include:

  • Those who can, will be working at home,
  • Some of those will have children at home and will need flexibility,
  • Overall work output available will be lower (as people are on furlough or made redundant),
  • Demand for services will go up or down (depending on your service),
  • Elements of your PESTLE and SWOT positions will be fluid (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal, Environmental and Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats)
  • Some suppliers will close – supply chain may be affected,
  • The population’s disposable income will decline, unemployment will increase,
  • More people will apply for vacancies,
  • Income will be lower, fundraising will be more competitive,
  • Investment will be lower,
  • International, national and local travel will be restricted,
  • Socialising and social contact will be restricted,
  • Physically engaging with the wider workforce and beneficiaries will be reduced,
  • Offices and meeting venues will not be required in the same way,
  • Face to face services will close, be restricted, be online or over the phone,
  • Stress, anxiety and frustration of the workforce and beneficiaries will increase,
  • Some workforce and beneficiaries will experience hardship,
  • Government austerity is inevitable,
  • Local will become more important,
  • Community leaders are emerging,
  • Some vulnerabilities have an increased visibility.

The questions and factors above - and many more from your organisation’s context – should help to develop a sense of what next for your organisation: carry on, we are doing just fine; prioritise; re-organise; new activity streams; adjust processes and decision-making; cut; merge; close with a legacy; or just close.

Treading water is not enough

Of course, many organisations have already made decisions like these – the key point of this article is to highlight that the context in which these decisions are being made is not short term. Holding station until this is all over may not be possible. Uncertainty is the new normal. Strategy and tactical approaches need to be sustainable, effective and robust to long-term disruption.

To end on a quote, perhaps for good reason there are few inspirational quotes about treading water and waiting for rescue. So – for being effective in the new paradigm – how about:

“Don’t wait for the storm to pass, learn how to dance in the rain.”