Leadership in a Crisis: Seven Key Steps for Cool-Headed Decision Making

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In times of great difficulty and stress such as those we find ourselves in today, it is often felt that action “must” be taken, and must be taken quickly and decisively in order to deal with the situation. The previous plans are perhaps no longer relevant, so we cannot follow them, yet we instinctively feel the need to do something to make things better. As leaders, we may even feel that others are looking to us to provide all the answers and that more than ever we are being judged on the decisions we make and the actions we take right now during this time of crisis. And perhaps “doing nothing” does not look like a very strong response from a decisive and powerful leader.

Yet the truth is that whether we are undergoing a crisis or whether it is business as usual, the same standards for decision making need to be met. Not all decisions are good ones, not all actions are beneficial ones, and not all strategies end up with high-quality outcomes for everyone concerned… plus it could be argued that making important decisions just when you are undergoing high amounts of personal stress may not lead to the best possible results.

Of course, I’m not saying that everyone should sit on their hands and do nothing (or even nothing different to what they would have done in any case). The world is quite different today than how it was just a week ago, let alone a month ago, and we therefore need to adapt our plans to allow for these differences. But neither should we throw the baby out with the bathwater and start mistaking “activity” for “progress”. Activity is easy – progress (by which I mean progress towards the attainment of our company’s vision) is less so. In short, many things can be done, but only a few of those things should be done, and as ever, it is the job of the senior leadership team to ensure that the actions that their business takes are the ones it should take – the ones that will lead to high-quality outcomes for the company both in the short and longer team.

It is difficult sometimes to know what is the best thing to do, and this is especially the case when we find ourselves in uncharted waters – unique situations that neither we ourselves nor others before us have found ourselves to be in. Such is the situation we find ourselves in right now. If we are not careful, we will either run the risk of taking a series of actions that end up making the problem worse rather than better, or alternatively of not taking sufficient action and allowing events to overwhelm us. Of course, there is a middle ground here, where as leaders we make high-quality decision that do provide the outcomes we need to attain right now. Below are seven steps divided into four questions to ask about a proposed action to take and then three further considerations about how to enable and support action, that may prove to be useful as a template for decision making in times of crisis.

  1. Does it strengthen your position in the short term? What do you need right now in order to survive? Is it new orders? Is it retention of existing customers? Is it cash flow into the business? Work out what the business needs to at least survive and preferably to grow right now, and then focus on just those activities that help to achieve these short term goals.
  2. Does it support your core vision and mission? Do not lose sight of your core vision and mission. If any proposed activity does not support your core vision and mission (ie if it moves you further away from or at least no further towards the attainment of your vision) then if at all possible do not do it.
  3. Does it help and support your workforce? Your company is only as good as its workforce, so before deciding on any activity, think about it from the perspective of that workforce. Will they perceive the activity or change as being a positive or a negative thing from their standpoint? If necessary how can you adapt it and/or position it so that it will be seen as a positive thing?
  4. Does it help and support your customers? Your company only exists because of the ongoing goodwill of your customers. So just as for your workforce, before deciding on any activity, think about it from the perspective of your customers. Will they perceive the activity or change as being a positive or a negative thing from their standpoint? Again if necessary how can you adapt it and/or position it so that it will be seen as a positive thing?
  5. Try to take an Agile (or iterative) approach. For larger decisions or for ones with more potentially far-reaching implications, try to break the action down into a series of smaller steps, each of which can be measured. By taking smaller steps and then measuring and analyzing the results from each smaller step, more information is uncovered a lot more quickly (and cheaply). This information can then be combined with what is already know to inform the decision for the next small step, and so on. Whilst this iterative approach might be more expensive and time-consuming than simply doing everything in one go and waiting until the end to determine the results, it has the advantage of a shorter feedback loop that enables expensive mistakes to potentially be avoided and provides a way of maximizing the results by continual small improvements along the way.
  6. Make the decision and support the team. After running your proposed activity through the necessary filters such as those described above, if the idea seems like a good one then commit to it and go for it wholeheartedly. Make sure that you provide the necessary assets and resources to enable your team to succeed at the task. Lead by example and show them that you are fully behind the project and fully playing your part in contributing to its success. Provide bother practical and emotional support to enable your team to succeed.
  7. Celebrate results! Whenever results are achieved (be they positive or negative) make sure that you and your team celebrate them. I am not suggesting a party every night, but it is important to recognize that all results form part of a learning curve that moves you and your team forwards towards the attainment of your objectives. Not only should you recognize this, but through the celebration of results you will show your team this as well. This attitude of celebrating results will help to create a stronger culture within the organization. Success breeds success, so celebrate the learning of new information every bit as much as the end result, since it is this learning curve that will get you where you want to be ultimately.

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