Final Guidelines for Leading During COVID-19

CEOs thinking differently

A friend mentioned that thoughts I shared recently about leading in a time of uncertainty were consistent with “Cynefin” (unless you’re from Wales, you likely can’t pronounce that correctly) — a decision-making framework developed by David Snowden at IBM years ago. I’d never heard of it but am now a fan.

I wanted to wrap up my thoughts on leading during this mess and move on, but I also encourage you to look for further information on Snowden’s methodology. Here’s a link to the Harvard Business Review article that defines it well: “A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making.”

Most CEOs I’ve talked with have struggled with (and some effectively worked through) the transition from a controlled, manageable business environment to sudden chaos. Although we’re certainly not done with this pandemic, I believe we have to move from chaos to confidence as best we can. However, the guidelines for leading during chaos are still in play; below are the five I find most effective.

1. Experience may not help. You may have a brilliant supply chain expert or restaurant layout guy, but at this point, experimentation is more important than experience in many functions.

2. Similarly, when cause and effect go out the window, experiment and grab onto what works. Snowden calls this sequence “act-sense-respond.” 

3. If you had a buttoned-up, predictable business model, you and your team are probably good at planning and budgeting. That may be handy in the future, but get comfortable with letting ideas emerge and rewarding experimentation. If the only way to win is to hit budget, you’ll be miserable. Celebrate good tries (behavior) rather than financial wins until you figure it out. Make it safe to fail.

4. More than ever, observe and analyze. Look for positive results, and put some effort (and perhaps money) behind them to see if you can expand on them. Don’t bet the farm until you’re sure it’s a real trend rather than an anomaly, but keep your eyes open! Have time on your calendar for open discussions with your team and to just think. 

5. If you have a collaborative culture, expand on that. If you don’t, it might be too late, but start having interactive discussions now. Observation No. 1 is that experience may not help, so you may get some great ideas from unusual sources rather than the “experts.” 

Someday soon you can move your business back to a more predictable state that may respond well to your prepandemic skill set. Until then, think about these five guidelines and recognize that your past success and skills may have little to do with success today. What do you need to change?

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