This article is part of a series, Tips on Crisis Leadership from Some of the World’s Greatest Leaders. It draws together lessons from leaders who have managed through times of novel crises including wars, financial crashes and organisational collapses. In this article we look at the importance of acting quickly and decisively if you are going to lead your organisation through this crisis. This article should be read in conjunction with the previous articles in this series, including framing the crisis well and the importance of leading with optimism.
The portrait of a crisis
It was 1994 and Continental Airlines was in deep trouble. They were on the brink of petitioning for bankruptcy for the third time in the last 10 years. No amount of debt restructuring was going to save them this time though. If they took this route, the company was dead in the water and their 40,000+ employees would lose their jobs. The problems were numerous and they ran deep. For example, they were the lowest ranked airline in the US overall with damning statistics in categories including arriving at destinations on time, lost baggage and flight cancelations. They did finish top of one league table though – customer complaints (receiving over 30% more than the second worst airline). Employee morale was also at rock bottom. In fact, it was so low that Continental employees removed the logo from their uniforms when they were in public as they did not want to be associated with the company. This was the very definition of a company in crisis.
Continental needed new leadership and fast. Enter Gordon Bethune as CEO and Greg Brenneman as President and COO. Under their leadership, Continental was transformed. In 1994, before they took over, the company suffered a $204million loss. Within 12 months, they had made a $202million profit. Not turnover: profit. In 1996, they made a $556million profit and this upward trend continued during their leadership. They also shot up the airline rankings, often finishing top instead of bottom. Team morale improved and staff turnover dropped by 45%. Instead of ripping the company logos off their uniform, sales of logo merchandise to employees increased by 400%. What a turnaround.
So how did they do it? Brenneman explains: “Time is tight and money is tighter during a crisis. If you sit around devising elegant and complex strategies and try to execute them through a series of flawless decisions, you’re doomed. We saved Continental Airlines because we acted quickly and decisively and never looked back”(1)
The need for speed
Bethune and Brenneman understood a key principle of crisis leadership: During a crisis you must act quickly and decisively to get through it. Why? Time is not on your side. For example, in January and February 2020, most charities and businesses were planning and working towards making that year their most successful yet. By early March, the Pandemic erupted and the same organisations had to act with unprecedented speed just to survive. That meant making rapid, high-stakes decisions including sending their staff home, finding new ways for them to work, choosing which services to continue and whether to furlough staff or let them go. Some organisations, faced with the prospect of zero income until the pandemic ended, had to quickly manufacture different products like face masks and hand sanitiser to survive. The organisations that acted quickly are still here, whilst those that dithered (sadly) are not.
Not too fast, not too slow
Increasing your speed is not a simple process. If you give in to panic, you will act quickly at all costs often without reviewing the information available to you. It is no good being fast if you are always making bad decisions. That will just hasten your organisation’s demise.
Equally, you must not wait for a complete set of information and clarity before making a big decision. It will never happen in a crisis. The situation right now is changing by the day – at times by the hour. Trying to wait until you do have the full picture will leave you vulnerable to deeper issues. For instance, a hospital delaying the decision to cancel non-urgent appointments can mean not freeing up doctor capacity and bed space whilst potentially exposing more people both in the hospital and their local community to the virus (which in turn would increase hospital admissions).
The balance you need to strike here is to quickly process the available information, determine what your priorities are and then make decisions with conviction. This does not always guarantee success during a crisis but it definitely puts you in the best position to achieve it. Accept the fact that you will make mistakes and when you do, correct your course.
How to increase your speed
The speed at which your organisation responds to the crisis depends on four interconnected capabilities:
- Recognition speed: How quickly you recognise that your organisation is facing a crisis.
- Planning speed: How quickly you create a plan to overcome the crisis.
- Decision speed: How quickly you can make decisions during the crisis.
- Execution speed: How quickly people, resources and/or processes are mobilised to act on your plan and decisions.
If your organisation is going to perform well during this crisis, you must ensure that you are acting as quickly as possible in all areas. For example, early recognition that you are facing a crisis and quick planning and decision making has limited effectiveness if your organisation is slow to mobilise the resources to take action. Identify potential bottlenecks that are slowing you down and apply the principles below to increase your organisation’s speed and effectiveness.
1. Recognition speed
Key principle: Confront the brutal facts of a situation, don’t play it down.
The quicker you identify a potential crisis affecting your organisation the better your chances of overcoming it. This is difficult to do. It is a human instinct to downplay a bad situation until it involves into a full-blown crisis. As a leader though, you must push through this natural instinct and confront the brutal facts about the situation your organisation is facing. The impact of doing so cannot be understated. For example, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden declared a national emergency when New Zealand only had 52 cases of Covid-19. When that figure rose to 204 cases four days later, she announced a national lockdown. This recognition speed allowed New Zealand to take control of the crisis before it got unmanageable, leading to the Washington Post headline: ‘New Zealand isn’t just flattening the curve. It’s squashing it’ (2).
The opposite is also true. In 2003, the world watched in horror as NASA’s Columbia Space Shuttle broke apart whilst re-entering the earth’s atmosphere, killing seven astronauts. The accident happened because the shuttle suffered a small, but critical bit of damage during the launch. NASA engineers spotted this as a potential issue and raised it with management. As is so often the case in a crisis, the managers actively played down the risk, noting that similar damage had never caused an accident before (3). The quicker you identify a potential crisis, the better your chances are of overcoming it.
2. Planning speed
Key principle: Choose simplicity over comprehensiveness when creating a plan.
Identify a maximum of three to five priorities that, if accomplished, will get you through this crisis. Then write them into a one page plan and communicate them to your team in an understandable way. Relentlessly measure your progress and make course corrections as you go to stay on track. Examples of what your priorities may be during this pandemic include (but are not limited to) employee safety, keeping your services going, financial liquidity and operational continuity. You can create more detailed plans under these categories, but limit them to a page each if you can. Your plan should be so powerful, clear and condensed that everyone in your organisation can take quick and focused action on it. Remember, the real courage of a leader is not telling people what to do but rather what it is ok not to do.
Why only three to five priorities on one page? During a crisis, staff have limited time and financial resources. Focused, relentless action against three to five priorities will get you further, faster than a complex 50 page strategy. Furthermore, studies show we can only recall three to five categories normally, and less easily during a crisis. When Bethune and Brenneman took over at Continental Airlines they created a one page plan covering: market (make money, don’t lose it); financial (reinvest into the airline); product (improve it, don’t finish last in the tables) and people (be a great place to work). They communicated this simple plan to all the staff, who then acted upon it. The result, as you know, was remarkable. Brenneman got similar results with the ‘simple plan’ principle in crises at Burger King and PwC.
3. Decision speed
Key principle: Prioritise decisiveness over perfection when making decisions.
Before the pandemic, the world was relatively stable and decisions could be delayed until we had all of the information we needed to make a near perfect decision. In a crisis, when the situation is changing rapidly and the future is uncertain, we have to make the best decision we can with the limited information we have in front of us. Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the World Health Organisation Emergency Programme, has managed crises like the Ebola outbreak for over 30 years. He said of managing crises: “If you need to be right before you move, you will lose. Speed trumps perfection. Perfection is the enemy of good when it comes to emergency management”(4).
So, how do you make the ‘best’ decision with incomplete information? First, set up a ‘war room’ to make quick, high-impact decisions. Ideally, your war room would include at least one Trustee, the CEO and other strategically important managers e.g. Finance. This should provide comprehensive viewpoints, allowing you to take a decision without missing key information. Second, empower frontline staff to make decisions, and tell them what decisions need to be escalated to the war room. This will give you time to make the more important decisions without being distracted by lesser issues. Third, give yourself permission to pause and reflect to avoid knee-jerk responses. Research suggests that pausing for as little as 100 milliseconds allows the brain to make more focused decisions(5). When both engines on a commercial aeroplane failed shortly after take-off Captain Sullenberger took a few seconds to reflect and decide on the best course of action. This allowed him to make the decision that ended up saving 155 lives(6).
4. Execution speed
Key principle: Be agile, not rigid when executing your plan.
Crises, like Covid-19, change hour-by-hour, day-by-day so it is important that your organisation is agile enough to respond quickly and easily to its opportunities and threats. They may be internal (for example, when you make mistakes in decision making / planning) or external (when the situation changes or new facts come to light, leaving existing plans obsolete). Lou Al Roumani was responsible for business continuity at Syria’s biggest bank, when civil war broke out in 2011. He had to find a safe location for a backup server, just in case their primary server was destroyed in the war. He initially planned to place it in Aleppo, which was the safest city in Syria at the time, but the situation unexpectedly deteriorated there. Then he tried to move it abroad but Regulators intervened and banned this. He then made plans to move it to a small Syrian coastal town. Before he could, authorities discovered rebels were using the same satellite technology as the backup server to communicate with each other so the Government banned it all together. Finally, he found an innovative way to backup all their data. This agility paid dividends bank when Syria had its worst snowstorm since records began just weeks after the solution had been found (7).
Improving organisational agility is a lengthy topic, but here are the key principles for your consideration. First, you and your team must be alert to the need for change. You can do this by measuring your progress against key performance indicators and staying informed on the pandemic. Second, you need to be able to make the decision to pivot as quickly as possible. Does your organisational decision making structure allow for this? If Trustees or CEOs insist on making all the decisions, no matter how small, then progress will be slower than a decentralised network of teams. The Government of Liberia switched to a network of teams model in response to their slow progress in tackling the Ebola crisis, resulting in far quicker collection of data and then decision making (8). This approach will also allow you to mobilise your team and resources more quickly. Finally, you will need to ensure you have a culture that encourages innovation and does not punish mistakes. For example, NASA did not punish people for suggesting solutions that didn’t work in their response to the Apollo 13 explosion. They encouraged ideas and eventually came up with ingenious solutions to bring the astronauts back to Earth (9).
Brenneman and Bethune inherited an airline that seemed impossible to save. They managed to do so however, and saved 40,000 jobs in the process. They achieved this not by making comprehensive plans and flawless decisions, after all they made mistakes along the way and they had to change course a number of times. They did so because they were fast in recognising the extent of the crisis they were in, rapid in their planning and decision making and ultimately quick to change direction when things weren’t working. My encouragement to you is to identify the areas in your organisation that are slowing down your progress and make a change. Remember, if you need any help doing this you can call on Cranfield Trust for free help. Find out more, here.
(1) For a detailed study of this turnaround, read: Brenneman, G (2016) ‘Right Away And All At Once’, New York Rosetta Books and Bethune, G (1998) ‘From Worst To First’, Canada, Wiley & Sons
(2) Fifield A (2020) ‘New Zealand Isn’t Just Flattening The Curve It’s Squashing It’ Washington Post, 7th April 2020
(3) Roberto, M, Bohmer, R & Edmondson, A (2006) Facing Ambiguous Threats Harvard Business Review (published on HBR.org)
(4) Hougaard, R & Carter J (2020) Perfectionism Will Slow You Down In A Crisis Harvard Business Review (published on HBR.org)
(5) Teichert T, Ferrera VP, Grinband J (2014) Humans Optimize Decision-Making by Delaying Decision Onset. PLoS ONE 9(3): https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0089638
(6) Loss of Thrust in Both Engines After Encountering a Flock of Birds and Subsequent Ditching on the Hudson River, US Airways Flight 1549, Airbus A320-214, N106US, Weehawken, New Jersey, January 15, 2009" (PDF). National Transportation Safety Board. May 4, 2010. NTSB/AAR-10/03.
(7) Al Roumani L, (2020) Lessons From a Warzone: How To Be Resilient in Times of Crisis. UK, Pengiun Random House.
(8) Nyenswah, T, Engineer, C & Peters, D (2016) Leadership in Times of Crisis: The Example of the Ebola Virus in Liberia, Health Systems and Reform, 2:3, 194-197, DOI: 10.1080/23288604.2016.1222793
(9) Cortright, Edgar M. (June 15, 1970). Report of Apollo 13 Review Board (PDF). NASA