“COVID-19; A wakeup call?”
By, Joshua Owusu-Ansah
Background to crisis and disruption
COVID-19 Crisis! Any event that is going to lead to an unstable and dangerous situation affecting an individual, group, community or a whole society. There are two main types of crises classified based on the source of the trigger. It could either be a natural source, therefore, a natural crisis or an industrial source, therefore, an industrial crisis. Considering such kind as incidents are a common notion, but in actual fact, incidents are not the same as a crisis. Even though within a crisis there can be several incidents and perhaps arguably an incident could lead to a crisis.
Therefore, Publicly Available Specification (PAS) Crisis Management Guidance and good practice (2011), defines a crisis with a view to business as an “inherently abnormal, unstable and complex situation that represents a threat to the strategic objectives, reputation or existence of an organization”. It posits that one key difference between a crisis and an incident is that an incident is said to have a structure whereas a crisis does not have a structure. As such an incident is fairly predictable in its management, while a crisis will need a genuinely creative solution that can be presented as a framework within which good decisions can be taken.
The sphere within which a crisis operates is complex and yet all types of crisis (i.e. natural, industrial) share three basic elements; 1. A threat to anything 2. Surprise element 3. Short time to react as indicated by crisis experts Matthew Seeger, Timothy Sellnow and Robert Ulmer (Communication yearbook 21, 2012).
Meanwhile, disruption can be said to be a disturbance or an interruption to an event, activity or process. It is an everyday phenomenon, and yet it is related so much to crises and incidents. Although an applied yet directed disruption can bring in the change desired with exponential effects, its reverse is true. An undirected disruption could bring change with exponential effect.
Cause and Effect
Furthermore, crises and disruption are a pair of causes and effects with an incident as their common ground. If this does not sound right to you, how about this question. COVID-19, is it a cause or an effect? In itself, it is believed to be a result of an incident that took place in Wuhan, China later parts of 2019. Arguably this incident which was not well managed even though it had a structure according to the common notion, caused a disruption in the Chinese
system. The crisis embedded herein later was manifested in a world that is disrupted, being disrupted and still in a state of crisis. There is a complex matrix of incidents which has brought us thus far in this crisis.
Hence, simply put, there is an incident whose effect disturbs or interrupts any event or activity carried out by any individual, group or a whole continent; it calls itself disruption. While interrupting, it gives birth to a complex series of events that has led to the unstable and dangerous situation of every individual in the world; the result which is crisis.
Although viewed from the perspective of current situation, it is worth for the sake of this article’s focus to have a look at the crisis which was and still is, even amidst the current crisis. I call this the “nested crisis”. There was an incident in 2001 carried by a group of developers who were tired of the old way of working. The result of their meeting will yield a directed disruption (i.e. Agile way of working). While disrupting the existing systems, created events that will destabilize the business terrain as we see it now, becoming dangerous to the old practitioners, hence a crisis in the business world. This is thought to be a disruption to bring the business world to a new age, challenging the status quo. In this crisis are born several incidents that also carry disruptive effects and hence the cycle goes on creating an exponential effect.
These two examples give a clear indication of the cause and effect, the vicious cycle provided by disruption and crisis on the ground of incidents. Some connoted by negative results while others positive results, depending on who is benefitting or loosing at each end of the equation.
A window into crisis management
In previous portions above, it has been made clear how a crisis does not have a structure and therefore its management needs to be borne out of a genuine yet agile framework designed to respond to the fast evolving incidents leading to disruptions which cannot be controlled in a short time. We have also stated that a crisis operates in a complex arena and hence needs to be managed in its complexity. In this regard, a peek through the window of managing crisis based on the following three areas gives an entrance into the scope of this article and how it views this current crisis leading to the guidelines heretofore.
It is a known fact that the topology of anything gives a birds-eye view of the entire situation taking into consideration the patterns that emerge as seen from outside. In this regard, the most commonly detected patterns of crisis are mainly of two kinds according to PAS; the sudden and smoldering crisis. Normally characterized by immediate onset of events and unprecedented incidents which are unanticipated, this is how the sudden crisis emanates. Whereas the smoldering crisis sometimes are undetected, over a period of time, whilst indicators of potential crisis are possibly missed, denied, ignored or misunderstood. A typical case of the COVID-19 pandemic. This seem to be the most common type of crisis.
However, in all of these the nature of complexity exists and forms the bedrock of the crisis. In effect, there are two major patterns of crisis according to the topology with a common underlying nature of complexity. What best can handle complexity than a framework which is light weight, very easy to understand and adopt and yet able to break the complexity down into doable daily tasks that ultimately delivers value at each stage and also preserve the desired state.
A framework needed to manage crisis has to be characterized by the following as according to PAS. It must foster good decision making, genuinely creative, deal with unpredictability nature of the crisis (agility). A key thing to note is that, this is a time for “making major strategic decisions in abnormal, unstable and complex situations”. During this time, it is not the preprepared solutions that counts, but rather the spontaneous yet effective solutions borne out of the feedback from the incidents happening that becomes the sure way to handle the crisis.
Therefore, consider the framework that is helpful for good decision making (i.e. taking into account the CATWOE of the issues at hand), give room for creative ideas to be nurtured and control the situation at the same time saving the organization, and also based on its structure is agile in nature to respond quickly to the changes happening on the clock. This should give you an idea of an existing framework that exhibits all these characteristics and even more. It looks like the blue pill from Morpheus, right?
Leadership is pivotal in the management of crisis. During crisis, leaders can be a repository of fear, hope, joy and focus to the people. In such times, it is not consensus that works, but rather is more of command and control form of leadership that can yield immediate results. Arguably many people will disagree with this thought but take a look at what China did, it had to be a command and control regime to cause the spread to be contained. In other jurisdictions, even the democratic rule had to be a command and control at the core in order to get good results.
Hence, the leadership required during a crisis must be direct with a mission and focused, leading from behind, in the middle and in front. Leadership at this point must seriously be felt on the ground in terms of direction, vision and then move of which is according to the framework. This does not rule out the factor of transparency in this case, which is very key from leadership perspective supported by the framework. Ultimately, leadership must assume all kinds of stances at this time to ensure better results. This must be leadership at all levels.
Combining all the foregoing thoughts, it is clear that this article has focus on two main things. One is to identify a workable framework in times of crisis, even as applicable during COVID-19 crisis and the other is to position this framework to ensure the leadership stance guidelines for this time is well laid out for application. In a sense, one can say that this article achieves this, by first giving the background as a base and then a discussion of agility and change management which happens to be the core of the application of the crisis framework. It then dives deeper into responding to the current crisis from the perspective of this framework and changes the conversation of the stances of leadership in this framework. Finally, there will be a comprehensive insight section where the question of COVID-19 as a wakeup call is answered by the varied discussions, to whom is this call and how must the respondent be positioned to manage the times.
 A mnemonic checklist for defining a problem. It takes a 3600 look at the problem considering different perspectives from customer, actors, Transformation process, World view, Owners and Environmental constraints. (https://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/article/newTMC_83.php)