Should We Run to The Chaos After the Chaos?

Without question, the Covid-19 pandemic has created unimagined levels of chaos for each of us to live with in our business and personal lives. Now with states and countries beginning to allow businesses to reopen, a new, different level of chaos is facing us. How will we handle the Chaos after the Chaos?

I had an interesting call with the President of a company the other day. He is in the process of reopening his company after being closed for 5 weeks due to the pandemic.  Orders for the products the company makes have diminished significantly. When we talked he had just come out of a series of meetings with his managers planning the startup.  What work is in process?  What is the order backlog?  Do they have material to build those products?  How many and which employees do they call back?  These are the questions that he normally has dealt with when they have had economic recessions that have dramatically affected his business in the past. And they are absolutely applicable again now. 

But he also said he has new questions to ask and answer to determine the best path forward. Are our suppliers open?  What are the procedures we will implement to keep our employees safe from the virus?  Can we move equipment around to keep them at least 6 feet apart?  How will they handle breaks and lunches?  Do the employees they need want to come back?  How does he not only assure the employees, but their families that he has created the right working environment under these circumstances?  What if employees are not comfortable coming back?  How do I make sure customers feel safe coming into my business?  How will I react if employees want to continue to work from home?  How do I keep the camaraderie in the company if some people work from home, but others must come in to the company to do their work?

He then made a very interesting comment about his approach. “I have always felt it is best to run straight at an issue until you break through vs waiting for someone else to tell you what to do next.  I do not have all the answers but I am forging ahead and working with everyone to figure it out.”  That really is  the best way to move forward with this new chaos that is the result of the chaos we have all experienced due to Covid-19.  He truly is Running to the new Chaos to figure it out. And just like First Responders, even though he does not know exactly what he will encounter, or what the exact answers are yet, he is running towards the problem, the emergency, the issue, to resolve it. He is running towards the chaos using his experience and knowledge to eventually find the answers, just like First Responders do.

There are many businesses reopening now. They are facing a new normal. They have to answer all the questions my friend was asking himself and likely others. But as these businesses reopen and deal with all of the questions for their business, I think the best path forward is the one my friend and First Responders utilize. Move forward with purpose, utilize your experience, and ask questions and listen to the answers to determine the best path forward.

When First Responders come on a scene, the victims are nervous, scared, not knowing what will happen next. As companies reopen, employees are going to have lots of different emotions and lots of questions. It is not going to be like calling them back from a “normal” layoff. How leadership teams handle the questions, emotions, and concerns that employees have is going to be even more critical today than before. Reassuring employees that the work environment is safe is and will be key. And that reassurance will likely have to be continually reinforced. You will need to assure your teams you are staying up to speed on the new thoughts and processes to keep them safe on an ongoing basis. Just as First Responders have to change processes and procedures, so will businesses.

I read an interesting article the other day from the Harvard Business Review entitled “Manage Uncertainty with Commander’s Intent”. It was written by Chad Storlie on November 3, 2010. And while that was almost 10 years ago, there was a great fundamental message about a tool/process the military uses to help the soldiers make split second decisions when chaos ensues. The “…Commander’s Intent is the description and definition of what a successful mission will look like.” It is written out and follows the typical 5W’s (who, what, when, where, and why) of how the mission should be executed. The Commander’s Intent describes how the Commander envisions the battlefield following the mission. The Commander recognizes the soldiers are going to encounter chaos and surprises, no matter how well briefed and trained they are. So my question now is, as a leader, do you give a really good quality CEO Intent? Do your people really understand what you want the competitive landscape to look like after the “mission” your people are on? How do you know they understand? Especially in these days of lean, flat, organizations, it is imperative that your people understand what the intent is and when they encounter chaos, they can rely on your CEO Intent to make sure they are making split second decisions that support your vision. It seems to me that no matter how well trained and intelligent your team is, using a CEO Intent statement/process that works for your company could be a really good tool to help your teams perform at a high level when chaos occurs.

As we all work to bring companies back on line, we need to think through how we are going to lead. This is a new world with new questions and issues. Perhaps using CEO Intent is a good tool to use to help your managers and employees make good decisions in dealing with the ramp up amid all the issues of dealing with Covid-19, or any business issue for that matter. I think this is a much more effective and efficient way to implement a leader’s vision, than waiting for the front line to come back and ask what to do next when something goes wrong. That is simply not an option in today’s highly accelerated work environment. I do think that just like my friend, running towards the problem and working with others to identify all the issues and then resolve them is key. And combining that approach with equipping your team to make decisions that support your vision should help them deliver more wins.

 Recently, I saw another article in Reuters about how Deere and Caterpillar were able to keep their plants running during all of the shutdowns by implementing various procedures to keep employees safe. Deere implemented strict guidelines prescribed by the national health protection agency and the World Health Organization. They expanded benefits to support employees as well. They altered shift schedules. And they hired an industrial hygiene company to audit the sanitization efforts in their plants.

Both companies altered healthcare benefits in recognition of the issues facing employees. Lunch hours have been extended to assure to ensure social distancing. And Caterpillar offered a new benefit of time off for up to 10 weeks with 2/3 of their pay if employees now need to stay home for child care.

Both these companies ran to the chaos to support employees and thereby kept their plants operating. Not every company had the same experience as these two did. From my point of view, they were both aggressive in keeping the employees well being in mind and provided support for their needs, including options for child care.

The new normal is taking shape right now. None of us know for sure what it will be. But we have to be open to change and find an improved way forward. As business leaders that is one of our key roles anyway. People have been through so much change now. Business models are being challenged every day in ways no one thought of before. We have a dramatic catalyst for change now. How will we handle it? How will you Run to the Chaos After the Chaos?

Should we Run to Chaos Now?

I think most, if not all of us, would say this is the most chaotic time in our lifetimes.  The interruption to our daily lives, businesses, etc is unprecedented.  So, a legitimate question would be, are you really going to Run to Chaos now?  My wife had a really good and important answer…

We have been taking a long walk every day to make sure we get some fresh air and exercise.  It truly has been one of the highlights of our day.  Doing it in the morning has tended to start our day off on a strong note.  Even if it has been a bit cold, we simply put on another layer and keep going…

We were on our daily walk this morning and as you can imagine, almost everyone was practicing social distancing and really not even looking at each other.  Towards the end of our walk, one man said, “Good Morning” and it was so refreshing.  We immediately started saying good morning to people we passed and you could see their expressions change immediately.  There was one elderly gentleman walking his dog and he just lit up when we said good morning.  It really made us feel better and we could see the smiles on others’ faces too.

Prior to the gentleman saying “Good Morning” to us, we noticed no one looks at each other at all.  In fact they do all they can to avoid looking at someone else.  I have to admit that at times I too have been guilty of that this week in particular. 

This is a battle, a war, etc — pick your own description—no question.  And it is very serious indeed.  We absolutely all need to take all of the precautions that we have been told to take.  Yet, I would suggest, we also have to be careful not to lose our connections as a society, our humanity.  More than ever, I believe we need some kind of connection with others.  Whether that is a greeting when you are on a walk, in a store, etc., or an email, text, or call  to a friend you have not communicated with for a while, we need to take some time to maintain our relationships and our humanity.

Most people are working from home now.  For some this is a new experience.  Whether it is new for you or not, one of the risks is that we lose the “connectedness” with our fellow employees/teammates.  One company I talked with the other day has implemented 9:00 am coffee hours and 5:00 pm happy hours every day.  They are using one of the popular video conferencing tools available to make sure everyone connects and talks with each other.  The conversations are mostly business, but they are also updating each other on their friends, families, etc.  They might talk about how to help a customer solve a problem, etc. They are staying connected. And they are finding that these sessions are facilitating broader idea exchanges than normally occurred in the office. And people are all making sure any changes that need to be made are made more effectively. These coffee hours and happy hours are an attempt to replicate the informal and important discussions that occur multiple times every day in every office.

So my suggested Run to Chaos “to do” today is to greet your neighbors or people on the street or in the store.  We can and should keep our distance and practice all of the appropriate precautions.  But let’s also emphasize our humanity and greet one another.  Lets find new and improved ways to stay connected at work — maybe your company needs coffee hours and happy hours! These are incredibly stressful times.  We can see it on our own faces and that of others.  Stay connected with friends, family, co-workers, and even people you see out and about. If you see a Health Care worker, thank them.  When you go to the store or the pharmacy, thank the people working there so we can get the things we need.  Thank the people stocking the shelves, working at the checkout, etc.   A simple, sincere “Good Morning” helped brighten our day.  I’ll bet it will brighten yours too and to whoever you greet.   I think in these strange and stressful times, it is more important than ever to emphasize our humanity and acknowledge we are all in this together.  In my opinion, that is the way to Run to Chaos during this crisis.  Good Morning!!

Evolutions

First Responders rush to chaos to bring calm to a situation.  It takes a special mindset to do that day after day.  To have a mindset to handle this stress every day takes mental preparedness.  In today’s post, I want to discuss what I have learned about what First Responders do to develop their mental preparedness and how that could apply to business.  

Mental preparedness is key.  This is true for First Responders and virtually all careers.  We must be mentally prepared and focused on the task at hand.  Chaos is stressful for most people.  Our reaction to a chaotic situation can either help bring calm or bring more chaos.  Human nature wants simplicity and order.  Chaos is exactly not that.  To be better prepared to help resolve chaos, to run to chaos, we must be mentally prepared.  Many times First Responders do not know exactly what they are going to encounter.  But they are mentally prepared to handle whatever comes their way.  So what can we learn from them that might apply to business?

In an article by Jeff Boss entitled “6 Ways to Thrive in Chaos”, he talks about his time in Basic Underwater Demolition/Seals Training.  One of the more impactful quotes from the article is “…to thrive in Chaos and adapt to change requires the mental preparedness to modify one’s thoughts at a moment’s notice…”  Boss describes the training Seals go through as “Evolutions”.   Each session focusses on the fact that no matter what you are trained to do, there will be a requirement for transforming the lessons when in the field.  So not only do they train skills, but they also spend time training how to apply the new skills in different situations.  They focus on the mental preparedness to change.  The Seals know that no matter how effectively they teach their soldiers, once they are on a mission, things will change and chaos will ensue.  They must be mentally prepared to handle chaotic situations.  Their training helped them keep calm and think through the options to develop the best solution for each situation. This ability to adapt the training to the situation at hand saves lives.

Like many of you I spent a significant amount of my career both conducting training and receiving training.  Yet, I do not remember too many sessions that also spent time focusing on preparing me and others to be prepared to modify our thinking quickly if faced with a chaotic situation.  How could we take the sales skills, the product knowledge, or the process knowledge and modify it to meet the immediate needs if faced with a chaotic situation?   While none of those are as threatening as anything Seals encounter, the situations are still important at that moment when an employee has to make a decision how to use the training they have received to resolve the particular situation facing them.  If our training sessions have not done a good job of preparing our employees for something different than what was taught (or how to apply it in different ways), how can we expect them to be mentally prepared to handle chaos?  We likely would never be able to teach all of the variations, but to take time to help our employees think about how to apply training in different situations would make them more comfortable when they are back in their jobs and faced with an unpredictable, uncomfortable, stressful, chaotic situation they need to resolve.

Emergency Medical Technicians are taught to evaluate a situation immediately upon arriving. Many times there are at least two EMTs.  One immediately begins focusing on people that may need immediate attention.  The other is collecting information.  Typically they are taught to answer a series of questions upon arriving.  Examples include:

                What has happened here?

                What is currently happening?

                Does any of this look familiar?

                What do we know right now?

                What do we need to know asap?

                What do I want to do?

                What do I have to do?

                What can I do?

These are not complicated questions, but they do provide a disciplined approach to collecting important information for themselves and to potentially share with others.  They also collect vital signs of the victims, etc.  They have a process they use to make sure they think of what is happening and what they need to do.  The process helps bring calm to the situation by helping them focus on going through the questions.  And when they need additional help, they get Emergency Room personnel on the phone or videoconference.  Perhaps the best idea to learn from here is how the process helps them collect pertinent information and immediately share that information with others to develop the best course of action.  Having a process to collect information that everyone who is involved in the situation understands, helps resolve the situation quicker.  Time is not wasted on getting the important facts and figures so all stakeholders can have the same understanding of the situation.  The stakeholders focus on resolving the situation. 

How many times when faced with a challenging, chaotic situation, do those of us leading companies stop to ask a series of questions like the ones above?  Or more importantly, how much time do we spend teaching our employees key questions to ask, important data to collect, etc.?  How many times do our employees call others that can help?  No doubt, some do ask questions and do call on others in the company to help.  But too many times people rush in and try to resolve something immediately without a common process of collecting and sharing pertinent information.  Their motives are good, but many times their execution is not.  Many times the result of this is to actually go down the wrong path in resolving a situation.  Taking time to learn and then take action can be most effective.  If a First Responder dealing with much more urgent and dangerous situations than we are can take time, then surely we can in business as well.  But the key is to train for it, to learn how to apply this thought process, and to help develop the mental preparedness of our employees. 

I worked for a company that utilized 6 Sigma successfully for many years.  It was very useful and transformational on many levels.  But for me, the most important aspect was that it was a common process across the company and was a common “language” for everyone to use to solve difficult problems. Sales, Operations, Manufacturing, Engineering, Accounting, Finance, Legal, etc.all used the same 6 Sigma language and process to handle problems. Having a common process and language sped the time to resolving problems.  I think taking a similar approach of having a common process and language for defining and handling chaotic situations in a company would be a powerful tool.  That process could define the questions to ask, roles for different people to assume, etc.  As we have seen this is what First Responders do to improve their mental preparedness to handle tough, chaotic situations effectively and efficiently. 

From my point of view, as the business world becomes more chaotic, this mental preparedness we can learn from the BUD/Seals training will become more and more important.  I think people who organize training sessions need to think through adding this “Evolution” to the application part of their training.  I feel we have an obligation to our employees, customers, and suppliers, to better prepare each other to face the chaos and to have the mental preparedness to handle it effectively and bring calm to the situation.  And I think to incorporate questions similar to the ones First Responders are taught should be integrated more into our training. 

Chaos is not necessarily a bad thing.  It is an opportunity to bring creativity to a challenging situation, help our teammates, and differentiate our company.  We must be mentally prepared to adapt to change quickly.  This does not happen without practice.  Training sessions must be modified to help us think through different, challenging situations.  Just as First Responders go through continual training so they can handle different situations they may face when they are called to duty, we must help prepare ourselves and our teammates to be prepared when we run to chaos.

I believe we also need to consider developing the processes that include questions to ask, data to collect, etc., and the way this information will be shared.  We need to provide the leadership to put these processes in place to help our employees handle the challenging situations they face.  I am convinced businesses move faster today and have more issues facing them.  This puts more pressure on our employees to handle different situations, many times on their own.  They feel like the first arriving First Responders sometimes.  We need to make sure we have provided them with the training and the processes to bring calm and order to situations.

Training helps develop our culture.  I have long felt that the culture a company develops is its most important competitive advantage.  The right culture brings out the best in all of the people in the organization.  They rise to higher performance levels taking better care of customers, teammates, suppliers, and all other stakeholders.  Developing the mental preparedness to handle chaos should become part of the culture in companies.

Welcome to Run to Chaos

The forces for change in business today are both more frequent and more powerful. The pace and the intensity of change have increased. Issues like global trade, big data, analytics, IoT, mobile technologies, ever advancing ecommerce, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, etc. The number of issues facing business leaders and their employees today are more than ever. The power and the force of these changes is creating ever increasing chaotic environments.

How prepared are businesses to handle this chaos? Perhaps more importantly, how are the employees in our businesses prepared to handle chaos? Many times, they must handle these chaotic situations themselves, not having time to wait for leadership to make decisions and give direction. Every day, we are seeing examples of increasing demands from customers for more customization done faster, new non-traditional competitors disrupting customer value chains that have existed for many years, and supply chains interrupted many times by forces out of their control. The impact of these changes and the speed at which we are forced to face up to them creates a level of chaos in business we have not seen before.

I believe Free Enterprise creates the opportunity for creativity. Further, with the current forces of chaos challenging businesses, we need to continue to find creative ways to respond. There are many good examples of industry responding to chaos and becoming more efficient and competitive. When the oil price collapsed to the mid $20’s in 2016, chaos ensued. Yet, after the industry responded quickly and effectively. New technologies were adopted, new efficient processes implemented, etc. The result is that the U.S. is now a major exporter of oil and gas as well as energy self sufficient. Not too many years ago, this was not deemed even remotely possible. This new globally competitive U.S. oil industry is having numerous market and geo political impacts. Responding effectively to chaos can become a competitive advantage.

I started to think about groups and organizations that live with chaos in their every day lives and careers as I wanted to see if we could learn from them how to better handle chaos. First Responders deal with chaos daily. Firefighters, police, EMTs, AMTs, Emergency Room personnel, our military, etc all must handle chaos frequently. And their success in their careers is based on handling those chaotic situations well.

Many people’s first reaction when confronted with chaos is to either wait for it to pass, or to wait for leadership to give directions how to handle. Yet chaos is happening too frequently now to wait. And more importantly, if handled well, can become a competitive advantage. The forces causing chaos today are only going to accelerate. There is an urgency to handling chaos effectively.

I have always felt that learning from the experiences of others is not only more effective and efficient, but also one of the highest compliments we can pay someone. We think so much of your work that we want to learn from you and make our business better…. So I began to think, what can we learn from First Responders that we could apply to our businesses today.

First Responders do not wait for chaos to pass. They Run to Chaos. They run with a determination and passion to resolve it. In their case, many times they are running to chaos to save lives. The images of Firefighters and Police running into the World Trade Center on 9/11 are etched in our memories forever. So are the images of police and security personnel running towards and into the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas while bullets rained down on them. Each of these and more are examples of First Responders running to chaos to resolve the situations as fast as humanly possible. What if we could apply lessons learned about their approach, their training, their teamwork, their communications, etc to business and become as efficient at handling chaos as First Responders? I think the companies that do will be some of the most successful moving forward.

I will be sharing research I have done on First Responders doing their jobs in various situations. I will write blogs about these stories and offer some thoughts and ideas on how these might apply to businesses today. I hope you will enter into a dialogue with me to develop ideas that can be used to make businesses more effective every day. Hopefully, we can create a community of interest and learn from First Responders and develop creative ideas. If we do this, then I believe, we are honoring our First Responders one more time.

Please feel free to share this blog with anyone that you feel would benefit from the ideas and find it interesting. The goal is very simple — to learn from First Responders and develop ideas from which all of us can benefit.

All the Best,

Rod