Where’s the Playbook for Leading During a Pandemic?

A mentor of mine said “think strategically, act thoughtfully, and be a good human.” That advice has been at the forefront for me during this crisis. 

The being a good human part and acting thoughtfully looks different for all of us, depending on our situation – whether we’re sheltering at home, on the frontlines caring for the sick and at risk, or trying to plan for the next 3 months of our companies and the livelihood of our employees. 

But how do we think (and act) strategically right now?

There are decades of business books about leading through disruption. But little has prepared us for what is happening now. Those books and seminars and LinkedIn articles were focused on market volatility, managing at the speed of change, the impact of technology innovation, etc. There were few that predicted this pandemic or provided tools and thinking for getting through it as a business. There are no playbooks for this.  

We’re figuring out how to hold the health and safety of ourselves, our loved ones, our neighbors, and the other citizens of the world while trying to do business and helping our companies survive to whatever the new normal is. 

Like you, we’re dusting off the strategy frameworks (everything from McKinsey models to Game Theory) to adjust our quarterly and annual planning. Is it even possible to do annual planning?

The takeaway

Volatility. Uncertainty. Complexity. Ambiguity.

Each type of challenge requires a different approach.

What we keep coming back to is a VUCA approach
(Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity).

Historically speaking, VUCA is a concept that originated with students in the U.S. Army War College to describe the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of the world post Cold War. Today, the concept has renewed relevance as it characterizes the current state of the world and the leadership necessary to navigate. 

  • Volatility Challenges: So much is changing so rapidly. Only a few weeks ago, we were in our offices meeting with coworkers or traveling to see clients. 
  • Uncertainty Challenges: It is difficult to predict what will change and in what ways. When will the way we do business return to “normal” and what will “normal” look like?
  • Complexity Challenges: There are an overwhelming number of moving parts. Leaders are forced to make plans for operations, sales, marketing, supply, and distribution in a rapidly changing and complicated market that is in free fall.
  • Ambiguity Challenges: There are too many unknown unknowns. We don’t even know what we don’t know right now.
VUCA - Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity

How does VUCA actually work?

We’re still using tools like McKinsey’s Strategic Horizons and the Balanced Scorecard, but we’re running everything through the lens of VUCA.  We’re taking four different approaches for the four different challenges. 

We’re starting by defining the problem or question and then determining which challenge it falls into. Then using the challenge-specific approach to determine a best next step.

Here are some high-level examples.

How do we sell effectively and ethically in the current environment? What do people want to know, see, and hear?

Part of this is an Ambiguity challenge. Experimentation and piloting are the keys to addressing ambiguity. So we’re testing different approaches, evaluating the results, and then broadly applying those lessons. Can product and service visualization help fill the space left by empty trade show halls? What interactions and experiences will help sales and technical support teams serve customers better remotely?

What are our customers doing or planning to do in response to this crisis? How will it impact their investments and plans?

To reduce the Uncertainty, we’re investing in information, talking to our customers and other companies in their industries. How have priorities changed? What are short term focus initiatives? What information do they need to make decisions?

There is no playbook, but we have to create one.

We’re all in uncharted territory, but we’re finding a VUCA(ish) approach useful for making meaningful and actionable decisions, and are applying it to client problems. As we collect more information, working on that Uncertainty challenge, we’ll share it. And would love to hear your approach to thinking (and acting) strategically during this difficult time.