One of the first lessons from the coronavirus, even at this early stage of the pandemic, is that you can never plan for everything.
The follow-up lesson, however, should give us all some hope. We can at least be more resilient when major, unexpected disruptions occur, as they inevitably will.
I’m seeing this first-hand. I was once the chief design officer for IBM Watson, and am now working in the property management sector. As public officials have issued shelter-in-place orders, the situation has upped the pressure on landlords and depressed traffic in commercial sites, which has led us to think hard about how to be more resilient.
Our conclusion is that we should stop wasting time planning ahead.
Instead, we’ve adopted a “now, next, later” framework for decision making during crises. Today, despite the pandemic, we’re efficiently making progress in matters where we have control, and we’re gaining precious time to gird for changes that may or might not happen in the near future.
“Now, next, later” is not a complicated time-management strategy. It guides people to focus on urgent matters immediately, keep an eye on what must be addressed tomorrow, and postpone dealing with contingencies that depend on too many unknown factors.
Notice how each step has subtasks. To know what demands a company’s resources now, executives need to be able to effectively gather information—inside and outside the workplace. Which employees keep tabs on customers, investors, vendors and other stakeholders during the crisis? Are executives aware of public directives that change by the day? Are frontline employees trained in the best practices? The answers to those questions can’t wait.
The same thoughts apply to determining what comes next. But to accomplish the next step, leaders must develop mechanisms for prioritizing short versus medium-term goals. Can CEOs depend on internal structures that allow for decision-making and implementation in a seamless manner on schedule? Or should they hold meetings that can be cumbersome but result in better decisions, and punch lists because of the iterative process of hashing out solutions?
Lastly, opting to postpone some decisions for later is key. It’s the only way to maximize a company’s response for now and the next day.
But planning is bad?
In normal times, every business should have a plan. But you can’t plan for contingencies when the business climate might change, when new laws and regulations are imminent, or, as in our current crisis, public health threats are in flux. At that point, planning is simply a waste of time.
What to do instead? React fast. Spend resources in ways that help immediately. This way, you won’t waste time and money revising outdated plans.
This strategy isn’t about canceling responsibilities. It’s about setting aside unanswerable questions until the time is right. How will you know when the time is right? You’ll know in the fullness of time, if you’ve been properly keeping track of what’s necessary now, focusing on what’s next, and purposely not squandering energy on issues you know you can deal with later.
How fighter pilots do it
The U.S. Air Force has a conceptual model for fighter pilots called OODA—or, “observe, orient, decide and act”—that might help you think about crisis management. The most important step in the cycle is orientation, or cataloguing one’s weaknesses, strengths, biases, previous experience and recent analyses, and then applying those insights to matters at hand. In other words, if you know your mission, and you and your team are honest and transparent with each other, and you’ve pinpointed what’s urgent and what’s not, then you should know what’s necessary now and what can be put off for later.
Consider how risk managers unsurprisingly tend to focus on contingencies that affect their specific industries, for example. Financial institutions monitor their leverage ratios in case of a credit crunch. Tech companies beef up their security to prevent hacking. Manufacturers secure backup suppliers in case of shortages.
That planning is important, to be sure.
But when an extreme or unprecedented event takes place, those plans almost always come up short—because they’re geared toward maintaining business as usual, instead of coping with the kind of massive disruption that nobody could prepare for. If executives know their company’s orientation, they can employ “now, next and later” immediately. They’ll be able to quickly separate pressing from less pressing needs, and weather the storm while they’re in it.
The aim here is not to understand uncertainty. It’s to deploy a model for thinking for times when it’s easy to lose one’s head. Right now it’s better to ditch those five-year plans… and get ready for curve balls we know we can’t predict.