Last week there was a story in the New York Times about an infectious disease expert in Seattle who tried to react quickly to the coronavirus situation, but unfortunately got bogged down by decision gridlock across various government bodies. This doctor had been running a different flu study for which she had collected samples from many people over a number of months. She also had test kits that could be used to determine if any of the donors had contracted the coronavirus. This was a unique opportunity to get an early start on testing and trace infections to their source. However, since she was redirecting the samples for a new purpose, she needed permission from various authorities at the state and federal level to proceed with the tests. Unfortunately, because of the privacy and ethical issues involved, her requests bounced around between various people for weeks and by the time she did start testing, it was too little too late.
This story made me think about how we react in times of crisis. Clearly the doctor was trying to do the right thing, the authorities were trying to do the right thing, but somehow the system did not deliver. I wondered about what could have been the outcome had the right people been engaged very quickly, reviewed the request, and found a way to overcome the procedural issues given the very special and urgent circumstances?
Disruptive crises like the one described above happen in the business world all the time. Commercial enterprises can get disrupted by competitors who stealthily introduce a new product or solution that threatens to significantly erode their financial results. They can be disrupted by unexpected quality or safety issues that blow up out of nowhere and threaten to destroy their brand reputation. And they can be disrupted by black swan events like the 2008 financial crisis and the 2020 coronavirus that create conditions that were totally unimaginable before the fact.
Disruptions can throw all the best laid plans into disarray. However, during such events, clarity of thought and creativity of actions are vitally important because time is of the essence. As you are racing to recover, any delays due to poor decision-making or bureaucratic logjams can set you further behind, sometimes in an irrecoverable manner. So, what can companies do to avoid this? What kinds of behaviors and culture can they implement that would allow them to move with speed and accuracy during a crisis?
Perhaps we can get some ideas from the world of startups. Startups are usually small and work on risky new ideas that challenge their assumptions on an almost daily basis. They are usually on a very tight budget and cannot afford to make any unnecessary mistakes or detours that could burn their cash and end their enterprise. In effect, every day can feel like an existential crisis. For them, time is clearly of the essence. So how do they make decisions? Collectively, creatively, objectively, and rapidly. Because the team is small, it is quite easy to assemble all the key decision makers in one place and avoid losses in translation. Once assembled, the team examines the issue from all directions and is quite willing to explore unconventional out of the box solutions, especially if it can save them significant amounts of time and money. They then make a decision that is honest and data driven because it would be silly to act otherwise (remember, their very existence is on the line). And all of this is done with speed because time is literally money.
Can the above approach be reproduced in large corporations? I believe the answer is yes. The first thing that must happen is that the people who make decisions must have a very personal attachment to the company and its people. If this is true, they will come to the table prepared to do whatever is needed to keep the enterprise alive and thriving. The next ingredient for success is the removal of decision layers. For any critical decision, all the decision-makers must be assembled in one place so that they can all listen together and make a call. This will prevent decisions from bouncing around in a maze of hierarchy and bureaucracy. The third ingredient is a culture of openness and honesty – or put another way, a culture of learning. Everyone must be willing to listen and then work together to make decisions based on the facts, even if they are controversial or run counter to past thinking. And finally, there must be an imperative towards moving forward rather than asking for more data and kicking the can down the road. It is better to make a hard decision immediately and cut your losses than to push out the decision and bleed to death.
As I think about speed, I am reminded of a conversation I had many years ago with a colleague who was doing a functional rotation at HQ. He had spent his entire career in the operations and his new assignment felt like a 180 degree change. Everything seemed slow. He was spending hours and days aligning and convincing a variety of stakeholders to get anything implemented. In contrast, the way things worked in the operations environment seemed so much more efficient. For example, if there was an issue in the factory, he would just walk over to where the problem was, assemble the right people, have a 15 minute discussion, get alignment on how to fix the issue, and then give the go ahead to proceed! His whole approach to decision making was driven by an imperative to keep moving and achieve results. For him, time was of the essence.
Times of crisis call for a different way of thinking. Can we learn from how things work in startups or in the operations environment? Could we use these learnings to speed up decision making during times of disruption, and potentially stave off an existential challenge?
I look forward to hearing your thoughts.