Setting Priorities and Driving Focus During a Disruption

The coronavirus disruption continues unabated. States have declared emergencies, schools have been closed, concerts and sporting events have been cancelled, and countries have started closing their borders.

I must say that I have been somewhat bewildered by all this. If this virus is indeed so contagious, won’t it eventually get to me despite all of the precautions? If so, why not just let the transmission play out and get it all done with? What are all these actions trying to accomplish?

I found some answers when I read this article from NBC News that talks about the concept of “flattening the curve” during an epidemic. The gist is as follows. If the spread of an outbreak like the coronavirus is not managed, it can result in a very rapid increase in patients, which can in turn overwhelm the medical establishment and result in many sick people finding themselves without a doctor or hospital bed. Conversely, if we can somehow slow down the spread of the virus, we can reduce the number of sick people at any point in time and ensure that everyone gets quality care. This concept is illustrated by the graphic below where the dotted line represents the total number of patients that can be taken care of at any point of time, and the solid lines represent the number of patients seeking care.

Thanks to Siouxsie Wiles and Toby Morris for their image that I used as a starting point for this sketch.

The concept of flattening the curve is quite interesting and has some parallels in the world of business. The coronavirus pandemic has created a state of disruption that is somewhat similar to when a company finds itself in a state of competitive disruption, i.e., when well-armed and fast-moving competitors suddenly introduce innovative products or new business models and attempt to upend existing norms. In such situations, the incumbents are sometimes literally fighting for their lives and must act quickly, with clarity, in order to survive.

Unfortunately, being disrupted can be a very unsettling experience. If not managed well, everyone in the organization can get into a state of frenzy, ideas can start pouring in from all directions, and demands can build up so quickly that they overwhelm the people who are actually working hard in the trenches to resolve the situation. This is not a recipe for success. The way to succeed in this type of situation is to “flatten the curve” and give the team a chance to succeed. This requires slowing down and taking deliberate action rather than speeding up and bouncing all over the place. Feels somewhat counter-intuitive, right?

In crisis situations, leaders must slow down and listen, understand the situation from all angles, formulate a strategy, and create a clear set of priorities. The listening must be honest and unbiased, and the resulting list of actions must be practical and feasible. A clear north star must be established – everyone in the team should understand what the destination is, why the proposed path is the best one, and how they can contribute towards success. With this type of clarity, focus and empowerment, the team is set up for success and the results will follow.

I personally experienced competitor induced disruption at one point during my career and worked my way through it by implementing the above approach. It involved working with my stakeholders and partners to align on a common strategy, and then collectively forcing ourselves to down-select a critical set of projects and actions that would drive the most impact. Then we brought everyone into the loop, let them loose, and stayed the course despite all the distractions. I found this approach to be very effective in creating a highly engaged and collaborative organization that could contribute from the grass roots. While everyone on the team put in a lot of hard yards, they did not burn out because the expectations were grounded in reality and every little success created the special momentum that only comes from winning.

Does all of this sound familiar to you? Have you lived through a disruption? What worked and what did not? I would love to hear your thoughts.

Image courtesy of Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash

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