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Take the opportunity to transform in a crisis, come out on top

In these times of struggle. Hit by a global pandemic, we realize our systems are imperfect.

Personally, I have reverted to who I am at the core, when the frills are gone. When our family was hit by the Covid-19 situation, I found great comfort in drawing on all kinds of past experiences. I discovered I have a great many different talents and mindsets to draw upon, from different times in my life. Growing up in cold-war Finland, for instance. Listening to war-time tales of the elders. Stories of resilience at the home front. How the mothers and grandparents, even children and youth, kept the society going. Society, by human instinct, uses untapped resources in times of scarcity or turmoil.

My upbringing brought additional tools, life perspectives discovered in the great library at my parents’ house, or learning to live by the whims of the elements as a sea-scout, sports activities that put group before self. Later on, I enjoyed martial arts and military training. Yes, I enjoyed military training. That might sound odd to most, but it was to me about a system of self-discipline and collective achievement.

My battalion commander had a saying. We would ask him what we should do, we assumed he would give an order. He almost never did – not when it came to problem solving. Instead he asked with a bit of sarcasm: “Well, what do you think you should do?” We would offer any haphazard suggestion of a solution we could think of. His response, always: “-Well, par example!? -Do that then. -Better than doing nothing” We knew the objective, so we at least did something towards that goal. Sometimes far from optimal, but we did something. That was a valuable lesson that I still carry with me.

David Marquart writes, in Turning the Ship Around about a similar strategy. As a submarine commander, he needed to convert a whole ship crew from thinking top-down leadership to thinking distributed leadership. (If a torpedo is about to hit you, you don’t have time to wait for someone else to order you to turn away from it if you are at the helm…)

David Marquart recommends a simple trick. Instead of giving orders to his highly trained staff, he simply asks them to communicate to their “network of peers” and supervisors what they intend to do next: “I intend to…”. with bottom up (and horizontal) reporting like that, the managers can simply choose to react only to correcting the course and giving helpful tips, instead of being responsible for solving every problem and giving specific orders, which is time consuming, stressful and inefficient. So, the old saying, “to lead is to support”, is more valid than ever.

Back to the present.

I started to contemplate how our family operations compared to a company’s operations. What strategies had to be adjusted and what operational systems could we shut down to create room for other practices, more suited to the situation?

I readily accept that we have a lot of structural capital in my small family. Internet access, two adults with lots of knowledge, skills and experience, one 5-year old with curiosity, joy and energy to share. What structural capital does a company have? Always more than we realize. Yet, do companies know what they have and how to access it rapidly when crisis hits? Now, a family doesn’t necessarily need a digital platform to hold its structural capital accessible (it would be a fun thing to have no doubt), but a large company cannot keep track of the dormant talents of everyone without a system. Much less would it be able to analyze every alternative value offers.

I noticed as a family, that our intellectual- and structural capital was completely untouched by the Covid-19 crisis. So, we just do things a little differently now. Operations was completely shattered – to use a company metaphor. Normal life was a thing of the past. A new normal had to be set in place. I start work at 5am instead of 8am for instance. I sacrifice a few detective stories and murder mysteries in the evenings and go to bed instead. We activated digital learning platforms for our son. It cost us less than the expense of the daily commute to and from school. We bulk shop. Probably also saves money. Not commuting to work saves both time and money.

A company has hordes of talented people. I cringe a bit when I hear of mass layoffs and furloughs. To me that sounds like lost opportunity. If your competition is shutting down and essentially stopped competing with you, then you get ready for the next battle. Polish up the systems, simplify the processes, cut the right corners, stop over-administrating, create the stuff that makes you better.

What assets can I redeploy? What do I save on? What can I shut down, and what do I do to reinvent what we do? Running a company is as much about what you could do as it is about what you currently do.

Market conditions (especially new ones) and your own ambition should dictate your choices, not a status quo that’s based on the past.

Break down your capabilities into People, Processes, Technologies, and Information resources. Start by shedding bad legacy. Re-assemble your resources into new capabilities, do something else based on a better vision. And boom, new reality is in place. Whether it is a pandemic or a disruptive technology or a trade war or a financial crisis – or all at once, you need to have the system in place to do those kinds of exercises, if you wish to survive.

These decisions – what to focus on when revenue is under attack, when the market is essentially dead – they require that you know exactly what you have and what you could do with it in any given situation. We have examples of flight attendants being retrained as nurses’ aides (they have security training, they are used to detailed briefings, to calming people who are anxious or worried). Large hotel chains convert rooms to remote work offices (the wifi is there, the tea kettle is there, the desk and chair is there…). Hockey rink designers can make plexi-glass face shields, a teenage kid can 3D-print ergonomic face mask relievers for nurses and doctors. The list goes on…

All inspiring examples have something in common. A focused use of dormant intellectual capital. I wish every company on earth a Digital Twin of an Organization platform. Whether it is a crisis or not. Look at all those assets and resources. What are you using it all for? Are your currently activated Business Capabilities really the best you can do with all that? What is your timeline? Determine your timeline by the optimal use of what you have and see how fast you can afford to transform. Or better yet, can you afford not to?

Author: Kristoffer Nordman, Corporate Development Consultant at Ortelius.