Leaders face demanding situations continuously. Worse still, the effectiveness of their response under crises, which is critical in mitigating and controlling the chaos, is delivered under extreme duress when both the response quality and its outcomes are known to suffer. Prior conditioning in the form of operating procedures, adopted and rehearsed repeatedly, repels mind-fog and body-freeze at the crunch times. But what happens when the situation encountered is beyond the precinct of any realistic risk assessment and is a black swan event? Likely chaos!
Anatomy of Volatility
“Volatility is all about dealing effectively with ‘whatever comes at you’ in a dynamically changing environment,” an army Captain and a friend once explained to me. “You need to feel ‘volatility’ to understand it,” he continued with his story, his eyes glassy. He had lost his commander in that operation.
“Three anti-terrorist commando teams from three different bases across the country had been assembled for the operation. Our introductions were quick, almost perfunctory. Two maps were handed out to us – one was of the hotel guest floors and the second, of the underground cellars. 60 minutes was all that we had to plan our offensive while on the move to the hotel. We were told there were between 6 and 10 terrorists, and over 2000 guests. Our task, neutralize the terrorists and evacuate the guests alive.”
“As we slipped inside, our eyes getting accustomed to the darkness, we fanned out in radials, our radios silent. There were two large circular bannisters moving up to the first floor. The darkness was getting frequently punctured by sporadic bursting of grenades and eerie silhouettes on the wall. Repeated gunfire from different positions conveyed that the terrorists were many and were changing positions rapidly. We knew that the lives of the guests were dependent upon how quickly we could reach them and how quickly we could flush out the terrorists. There was no one to take orders from and no one to give orders to. Each commando was on his own responding to his localized situation - with only the final objective in our minds. The darkness was our enemy. The darkness was our friend.”
The Phase I: Neutralizing the Volatility - The SWAT Team:
Environment make-up can either be volatile or non-volatile, and the enemy, known or unknown. Each of the combinations needs a distinct strategy to surmount. The volatile-unknown combination, is perhaps the most vicious ground for breeding crisis. Operating under such an emergent situation that continuously unfolds surprises, execution demands:
A strong and fully briefed frontline response team aware of the risks, objectives and protocol of the operation. Each unit, if needed, should be able to operate in the absence of command-and-control chains. The decision making needs to be on-ground, real-time and decentralized, with intermittent synchronization with the central command. The basis of team-engagement is trust, and alignment to the key objectives.
A strict corollary too! Anyone not directly engaged in the operation should keep clear of the team’s path and not add anything that compromises the teams’ performance.
In the hotel under siege, the enemy was numbered. In Covid-19 pandemic, the enemy is unknown and expanding uncontrollably; the speed of response is thus vital and my previous post was all about that.
The Phase II : Neutralizing the Aftermath - The Build Team:
Successful outcomes are the result of both the choice of an action and the action itself. There are only three atomic actions possible – creation, sustenance and destruction (look at software programs – add, amend and delete). Thus action mimics lifecycle. The three atomic actions are not only starkly different in their outcomes, but also need very different inputs to instantiate and propel them. Creation demands knowledge and innovation, sustenance needs nourishment and growth (and hence resources to stay alive), and destruction, courage and foresight, especially if initiated voluntarily. Steve Jobs was the epitome of using creative destruction as a powerful tool and could retire products well before the markets got tired of it.
A crisis can impact the tactical, operational or strategic elements of an organisation and the intensity of impact itself could range across being debilitating, recoverable or minimal. Each combination needs a different treatment. However, crisis that delivers a crippling blow to an organisation’s operational and strategic foundations, bringing it to a grinding halt, needs a radically different approach. ‘Destruction’ then becomes a key tool for survival.
Organizational response under such conditions will warrant
Accepting the new realities: This necessitates unlearning, rapid absorption of new facts and minute review of all strategic assumptions that would have necessarily broken down completely. Who could think of empty roads and empty skies? Who could think of oil at USD25 a barrel? At this price, every assumption around the oil production costs and revenue build-up needs to be carefully revisited. Rebirth after near-death? Organizations will need to drive rapid transformations to adjust to the new realities.
Adopting the new world: With immediate shifts in engagement models, new channels of delivering value to customers and stop-gap market responses to the changes being enforced, the new order has already begun. I spoke of some of these in my previous post too - lead interface will become digital due to pronounced social distancing directives, trust will be the new currency as work-from-home will be the new-norm, focus will be on profitability as cash-guzzling start-ups relying on the next round of funding alone will be crippled, China as a product hub will take a beating and localization will get an impetus, just to name a few. Organization that are slow to adopt will need a breakthrough speed in catching-up at a later time.
Destruction precedes transformation, as post destruction comes creation of the new. Destruction is a key tool during volatile environments. Organizations not preparing themselves for accepting and initiating large scale destruction - of irrelevant processes, arrogant approach and myopic plans (like using employee and contractor cost reduction alone to battle this crisis) will soon find themselves out of time-sync. A new era would have quietly begun, leaving them cold on a trail leading to the long-lost dinosaurs. As organizations bite their time today through this brief hiatus, they must spend time in creating their ‘destruct-list’ – their path to simplification and life-extension in the new world. In destruction lies the new order of doing things, as during crisis, destruction and innovation always go hand-in-hand, in harmony.
‘Destruction implies simplification.’ Based on the Space-Time-Action Strategy Triangle from the book, Achieving Successful Business Outcomes - Driving High Performance & Effective Transformations in a Continuously Evolving Business Environment by Alok K Sinha, Taylor & Francis, Routledge Publishers, NY & London, March 2020. With additional inputs from Sangram Surve, ThinkWhyNot, India and Mrinmoy Chakraborty, SOLiD, South Korea.