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woman in hazmat suitNot all emergencies are merely acute crises.


The COVID pandemic has moved from an acute crisis of shutdowns and daily briefings to a long-term, chronic crisis. For those of us who lead organizations, this changes the way we think about the crisis and act to respond to its effects. Of course, COVID isn’t the only chronic crisis out there; it is the one that is top of mind for many of us now.


For instance:


  • I worked in an organization for seven years that had a constant financial solvency problem. No one knew week-to-week what bills would get paid, or whether payroll would be on time. That is a long-term, slow-motion crisis.


  • Another organization I worked with had lost over 50% of its revenue over 15 years and was in the process of reinventing itself to find new ways of doing business. This was a slow-motion, long-term crisis.


Long before COVID, organizations were dealing with these kinds of long-term crises. Now, we have added to those with immediate shutdowns followed by months of uncertainty in spring 2020. And COVID, as a crisis, is shifting form acute to chronic as we speak.


Having worked with a wide variety of organizations in long-term crisis over the years, here is a way of looking at long-term crisis that can frame how to move forward in this pandemic environment.


Acute Crisis Perspective


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Young man on hillside overlooking a coastal cityListen to the words you use.

Listen to the words you use about your company when it’s quiet. What are they?


Sometimes, we are celebrating, reminiscing, enjoying.

“I’m so glad we were able to help that person today. They were so excited!”

“Do you remember when we started? Look how far we’ve come!”

“It was so nice to see our staff working so well as a team today.”


Other times, we’re anxious.

“Wow, finances are tight. I wonder if we’ll be able to make payroll this week?”

“There’s a new competitor in town: what if people like them better?”

“What if we hold this event, and no one shows up?”


Still other times, we’re feeling burnt out.

“I can hardly get the motivation to go into work today.”

“What did I get myself into?”

“I feel stuck, but I don’t know how to get out.”


What do you say to yourself when it’s quiet?

Some of you are saying, “Quiet? I don’t have that.”

Ok, I hear you.

In that case, what keeps you up at night?


No matter what those statements are; whether we judge them “bad” or “good” or somehow something in between, when we allow ourselves to look at them, and really feel them: at those times, we find our “why.”

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shutterstock 528653653“Unprecedented” is used so frequently in the news that living through a pandemic suggests we need a new word to describe the experience.

None of us had heard of “social distancing” until a couple of weeks ago. Three weeks ago, people were making jokes about a certain brand of adult beverage getting blamed for making people sick. Four weeks ago, the Coronavirus was a problem that was “over there” – starting to make disruptions, but not “here” yet.

This is a VUCA world pushed to an edge: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. Even if we were not experiencing the Five Frustrations before (Firefighting, Information, Process, Complexity, and Alone), we are now: responding to an external, inhuman threat that challenges everything at once.

If you’re anything like me, you are hoping that this all gets over quickly. As of today, “quickly” likely will be at least 8 weeks, if not longer, for the acute part of the crisis; the economic impacts will likely take much longer to recover from. There are things we can do to improve our outcomes, bring order out of the chaos, and adapt. The disorder of our current sense of things will tend to drive us to unconscious reactions. Those reactions will generally drive us toward poor outcomes. To work from the alternative, that is, to work from our clearest, best selves, will take some reflection. To help with that, this article will do the following:

  • Categorize our current experience according to the Five Frustrations
  • Use a sense-making model (Cynefin Framework) to help us discover what responses on our part have the best chances of working
  • Follow the recommendations of the model to put our best foot forward. (For those who want to skip to the very end, let’s chat online about how to do so!)

Let’s dive in.

Categorizing Our Experience

We’re experiencing Firefighting if we’re having to respond immediately to school closings, working remotely, reshuffling cash flow due to demand slowdowns, responding to emergency orders from public officials, or answering phones, e-mails, and walk-ins at unusual rates.

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Where did the steps go?How many times have you planned something out very carefully, only to get partway through the process and realize that things are not going as planned?

For me, this happens a lot with home repair projects. Frankly, having lived in a house built in 1925 for 10 years, there were always things hidden that made something more complicated than it needed to be. And often times, those things were previous repairs (or repair attempts). One involved a reciprocating saw going through old (live!) wiring that was not expected to be in that area of the wall. Turns out, someone had just plastered over an old light switch box… (but that’s a story for another time).

In any sort of planned process, there is a set of challenges that come up with regularity when we move from planning to implementing. This is true whether the planned process is a new strategy, a new project launch, or even a new procedure. I call these challenges “Pivot Challenges” because they exist at the hinge point between the planning and the doing phase of a project.

Not accounting for these Pivot Challenges can lead us directly into the Five Frustrations. Let’s look at the two most common Pivot Challenges, and how we can avoid them.

Pivot Challenge 1: No Margin

The first Pivot Challenge is No Margin. Lack of margin means that there is no room in the organizational system (financially and/or through staffing) to sustain necessary operations while also making a change. This leads directly to two of the Five Frustrations: Firefighting and Complexity. Leaders encounter Firefighting because the change process itself adds workload and anxiety to the system, which increases the intensity of each decision – especially the unexpected. Leaders also encounter Complexity as existing systems must continue to operate while changing and organizing new dependencies (what change operations depend on others) sometimes is done on the fly.

The response to a No Margin Pivot Challenge is usually a combination of hiring and pacing. Hiring – to increase capacity to do the actual work; pacing – to make sure the work can get done in a reasonable amount of time with out either overwhelming people, dragging out forever, or failing to start at all. Sometimes the hiring is temporary – through temporary workers, or through consultants – to get through the change process itself. Sometimes, though, it is more long-term: the new workers have different skill sets and capacities than the previous workers, and either supplement or replace existing roles.

Pacing is often governed by capacity and deadlines. Making sure people have the capacity to meet the deadlines helps make sure the pace is reasonable.

When we work with clients, we often develop a Process Design on the front end to make sure expectations are reasonable, planned out well enough everyone knows their role, and that the overall project has a good chance of success. A good Process Design answers all the basic process questions to organize and deploy the needed changes. The up-front costs are balanced against the costs of re-work, inefficiency, and employee churn for processes that are not designed well from the beginning.

Pivot Challenge 2: No Room for Emergence

The second major Pivot Challenge is No Room for Emergence. Contingencies are a part of daily life; in our planning, though, we often overlook what contingencies might occur. This drives us into several of the Five Frustrations: Firefighting, once again, Information, and Process. Firefighting, because the unintended consequences of early changes may not emerge until there is some sort of crisis. Information, because we often don’t have good information early enough on to see what might occur that will need to be accounted for. Process, because often times when something unexpected happens, we throw the whole process out, rather than adapting it.

The response to an Emergence challenge is to determine the level of crisis it causes: immediate and important, non-immediate and important, and so on. This means we often pause the rest of the change process adjacent to the emerging challenge until we can resolve what is happening. This means the response requires new communication, clear communication, and a reset of expectations and workload.

There are five major ways to build in resiliency to many emergent challenges, though, if done ahead of time.

  • The first way is to test to see if the plan is a Rube Goldberg contraption – a plan with so many precise dependencies that one minor problem is going to ruin the whole thing. These are often over-engineered processes, in the first place, as well.
  • The second way to build resiliency in is to make sure that a good environmental scan has been done before launch. Have we measured what is “out there” that could affect what we are doing after we start?
  • The third way is to build in strong feedback systems so that leaders can take the measure of the unexpected before it becomes a much larger problem.
  • The fourth way is to test and experiment with systems before launching a process, and to create space for experimentation through the process – this allows things to be refined before they get too far along to be corrected easily.
  • Finally, the fifth way is to make sure that the right balance of leadership and stakeholder input is developed early on in the planning stages, to signal what might not be otherwise seen. This balances the polarizing tendency toward either ivory tower planning, or over-democratized planning, one which creates processes that often get bogged down in the wrong kinds of consensus-building (there are plenty of good consensus-building processes); the other that delivers fully formed packages from on high which may or may not relate to reality.

Our first project with a client often occurs after an emergent challenge has developed and this has created an expertise or capacity problem. We know that this is serving them well, because once we resolve the crisis-level challenges brought about by something unexpected, we often can go back and build a plan with them that builds in the resiliency needed to manage future emergence. And that feels like success.

But Don't Go It Alone.

Whether you have experienced a lack of margin in your change process, or whether your project has been jostled into crisis by something that emerged after the fact, or whether things are going relatively smoothly, the one thing to remember is that it is not necessary to go through change alone. Alone raises our stress levels, because we second-guess ourselves (or perhaps should have, and now we’re getting stuck with our own over-confidence). Make sure to bring someone alongside to help. I’m happy to suggest a few people who are good at that sort of thing.

What does your current change process look like? Let’s chat about it!

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shutterstock 131767742For many people, planning seems like a waste of effort. Why plan when we could be doing something to make real money, right now? Why plan if things are going to change anyway?

Doing planning right is a significant investment in time, energy, people, and money. Even if the only monetary costs are the salaries of those involved in the planning, this is often still a significant cost – since folks involved in planning are often paid at the higher end of the scale. It is essential, then, that planning has a real return on investment - otherwise it truly is a waste of time. 

Critics of planning challenge me with four real problems:

  1. “If we plan, and something changes, how will we adjust?”
  2. “Planning takes place in an ivory tower – these decisions get made but they never asked us what it would actually take to get it done.”
  3. “I don’t have time to plan – I’m too busy!”
  4. “We’ve done ‘strategic planning’ over and over, and it doesn’t make any difference!”

These critics are usually correct about how planning has worked in their organizations – and illustrate four major reasons that plans fail. We’re going to highlight those four, and point toward ways leaders can overcome those four major planning failures. Note that these four are often interconnected in complex ways.

Failure #1: Rigidity

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