Have you captured the lessons from your organisation’s response to COVID-19?
Our team has been busy working with organisations in a range of sectors to conduct COVID-19 response debriefs. We are so impressed by the initiative, adaptability, and overall care for wellbeing shown by those we have been working with.
Our facilitated debrief process compiles data from interviews and/or workshops, surveys, and any other data sources. It provides you with recommendations to ensure all the lessons you learned on the fly are embedded in your response processes and any weaker or more challenging response areas are improved.
Capturing lessons is not about identifying failures or enacting blame. It is about learning through battle and sharpening our tactics and strategy for the next encounter. Capturing lessons learned, before they are lost to memories, is a key part of building crisis response capability.
When a crisis event emerges, knowing what is expected of you and others is critical for an effective response. For many organisations, the role of the board in a response and recovery is not clear. These blurred lines can introduce uncertainty, slow the response, deepen the crisis and make everyone’s job harder.
The recent research conducted by Resilient Organisations’ Richard Ball and Erica Seville on the board’s role in a crisis sheds light on this grey area. It is a guide for boards members and managers alike. It draws on the combined wisdom of 12 board chairs, directors and chief executives, all of whom have led their organisations through numerous crises. These include earthquakes, reputational crises, market collapse, terrorism, critical infrastructure failure, worker fatalities, and of course, COVID-19. The 12 interviewees have been involved in many sectors, both public and private, across New Zealand and Australia.
The current COIVD-19 crisis has shown us that the unexpected does happen. There is no room for complacency. Being prepared and thinking about how to respond to the next crisis is time well spent if you want your organisation to survive, or even thrive in future events. Ensuring there is clarity at the top of the organisation is a great place to start.
If you have not already, now is the time to ensure your team is thinking strategically about recovery.
It is easy to get overwhelmed with the response process and the complexities of adapting operations to our new normal. But it is vital for long term success to allow time for some strategic thinking. If you are a small business owner, this means extracting yourself from the operations. If you are a larger organisation it may be helpful to assign a separate team to start thinking strategically about recovery for your organisation.
RESILIENT RECOVERY PLANNING PRINCIPLES
Whilst there is still significant uncertainty as to how the pandemic will play out, planning at this stage requires adaptive decision making that evolves as uncertainty resolves. Your planning framework needs to deliver a clear unity of purpose across decision making and operational teams – this is a complex and chaotic space that requires structure and process to help people navigate uncertainties. Your forward-thinking needs to springboard off existing planning, coupled with critical reflection on what needs to evolve, and creating the right conditions for new and innovative approaches to be tabled.
RESILIENT RECOVERY PLANNING STEPS
PURPOSE AND VALUES
Define or reaffirm what lies at the heart of recovery for your organisation.
This includes your core purpose or mission as an organisation, your vision, and your values. This may include financial and non-financial objectives – such as community outcomes, staff wellbeing, and reputation.
These principles should be the guiding light and common thread that holds your strategic thinking together.
Dust off and review your pre-COVID-19 strategy.
Refresh yourself on what you were trying to achieve in the long term, and the short and medium-term actions you were taking to get there.
Take stock of the changed, and changing environment around you.
Take time to talk to key business partners, customers, suppliers, and peak body groups. Are there emerging trends in your key market? What are your competitors doing? Where are your suppliers located and what is happening there? Where are their suppliers located? What is the global economy doing? What could the economy do?
Think as broadly as possible – business disruptions can come from unusual places.
Test your current strategy against a range of possible futures.
None of us have a crystal ball. Too often we ‘lock on’ to a single perspective of what the future might look like and design a strategy that works really well in that world. However, if the future is different to what we imagine, our strategy can be severely undermined.
Create different future scenarios
Now that you have a good sense of what is happening, get creative and think of what could possibly happen in the future. Using the situational awareness you have developed, create 3-6 credible and diverse scenarios of what the future might look like. For example reopening of NZ borders within 6 months; within 18 months; a resurgence of COVID-19 within NZ; wide adoption of working from home. Base your scenarios around the factors that will influence your business the most.
Evaluate your current strategy against those scenarios
What works and what doesn’t work in each of those scenarios? You want to prioritise actions that work best across multiple possible futures, even if that decision is not optimised for your assumed future. For example, if pursuing a new type of customer works well in one scenario but not at all in another, you should consider how you can hedge your bets – potentially investing a little, but not putting all your eggs in the one basket.
Also, check if there any opportunities in those futures that you haven’t currently included in your strategy?
Design a strategy that is deliberatively flexible.
Now you know the parts of your strategy that work best, and those vulnerable to disruption, it’s time to build some flexibility into your strategy. One way to do this is to develop a staged strategy with key decisions points along the way. For each decision point think about alternate paths that could be taken if your initial strategy is no longer viable. Aim for strategic decisions that are equal part least regret and opportunity. And that maximise the diversity of your operations – be it the market you serve, the suppliers you use, or the staff you employ.
Diversity can be an insurance policy for your business. Make sure that you recognise and act on opportunities that emerge from a crisis. It may mean you need to re-prioritise, defer or create new strategic aims.
Have some critical friends review your strategy.
Organisations don’t operate in a vacuum. The success of their strategy depends on staff, current customers, potential customers, funders, shareholders, suppliers, etc. So it is important that the strategy is reviewed in light of these diverse perspectives.
You can do this yourself, or better yet, get some key partners to cast a critical eye over the strategy. The review process should be ongoing. Where possible identify triggers that might indicate you need to review your strategy. For example, if sales of a particular product reduce by 20% or if a competitor closes. Be prepared to review your plans frequently as new information comes to light and be prepared to change direction to avoid losses or to seize an opportunity.
Don’t forget to bring your team along on the journey with you. They’ll have great ideas and will be more invested long term.
Capturing lessons learned: the importance of 'hot' debriefs
COVID-19 will be a long-running event that will require constant monitoring and response activities.
Collating learnings from crisis events is normally left until after an event. However, in this case, there is an opportunity to reflect on and learn from our response to date, so we can do things better from this point forward.
We strongly suggest capturing lessons now, to enact improvements that will help through this long-running response.
WHAT IS A HOT DEBRIEF?
In emergency management jargon, a ‘during event’ debrief is called a ‘hot’ debrief. This is different from a formal ‘after event’ review. Below we highlight the differences between the two.
Key response personnel
Key response personnel and key stakeholders in response
Together we can build stronger business continuity plans: adaptive plans that embrace uncertainty and change
Practical tips on how to inject adaptiveness into continuity planning processes.
COVID-19 has been another reminder that we can’t plan for everything. As Business Continuity (BC) professionals we do our best to anticipate and plan for any event that will impact our organisation’s ability to deliver its products and services. But we live in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world. And organisations are embedded in a complex global web of technological, social, political, and environmental conditions. It is impossible to imagine every eventuality that will occur.
It is also impractical to plan for everything. Not only would the planning be extraordinarily resource-intensive, but plans would also be unwieldy and it would become even more difficult to get engagement in the planning process.
We need to strike a balance between detailed planning and flexibility and adaptability. We need plans and processes that staff can easily engage with and that help them to adapt as necessary to each unique situation as it arises. So how can this be achieved? How can we develop more resilient BC plans?
Below we take the key steps in the BCM cycle and suggest how we can improve the ability of our plans to work in any situation.
BC has often been treated like the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. BC managers design plans to get operations moving following disruption, often with a focus on a ‘return to normal’. But what if the event dramatically changes demand for your services or necessitates a dramatic change to your business operating model?
COVID-19 has done just that. The path taken to return to operation has been intertwined with strategic questions around future operating models, how to minimize expenditure, and how to seize opportunities. For BC managers and plans to work effectively they cannot exist in a vacuum, they need to be closely linked to strategic decision-making so that BC actions can be designed and managed to seamlessly transition to new ways of working. This needs to happen before an event with a close alignment of BC management processes with other strategic and operational risk processes. There is also value in having BC managers involved in strategic response decision making as they may be best placed to understand which parts of the plan are useful and adaptable to meet the needs of the situation.
During the 2000’s a health and safety culture began to infiltrate our workplaces. All of a sudden we had health and safety officers, reporting templates and a directive to cast a H&S lens over everything we did. Even thinking about the temperature of water when we make a cup of tea! This is the sort of ethos that we need to strive for as BC professionals. We need resilience champions embedded in our organisations. These champions are continually asking ‘what if our base assumptions change?’ ‘What if we need to do this business-as-usual process quicker’ ‘What if someone else has to do this role?’ Making this kind of thinking part of our business-as-usual builds the ability of an organisation to innovate and adapt in a crisis.
This resilience mindset needs to occur at all levels of an organisation. We need to run scenarios that capture the hearts and minds of Board of Directors and Executive teams so that they too are ready for anything. Find out what most worries your Executive and design a scenario around that – perhaps it is being on the front page of the newspaper, becoming a viral meme, or an event that impacts the health and well-being of staff. True disruption preparedness requires buy-in from top to bottom of an organisation.
Too often we focus on determining key risks, rather than focusing on impacts. There are many risks and many potential ‘Black Swan’ events. The list of impacts is shorter than the list of events that may cause them! Focusing on impacts helps ensure you are not limited by what is and isn’t possible. Creating plans broadly around impacts increases the likely relevance of specific plan sections to actual events. Adaption may still be needed but the starting point is likely more advanced.
Centralised creation and control of BC is a disabler of adaptation. It is really important to keep outcomes rather than process as the guiding principle in the design of your programme. Sure, some standardisation and some measures of control are needed, but try very hard to balance empowerment, engagement, and broad ownership with your organisation’s need to create any one-size-fits-all solutions.
Many plans we see are almost impenetrable with pages and pages of dense text. The defence given is that it’s the planning process that is important. Which we agree with. But it is not either-or. The planning process is important, but the plan itself can also be useful! BC professionals can use user-focused design principles to create plans that are useful and useable. For example - if only the front page of the plan is looked at, what do readers need to know? What are the principles that guide everything in the plan? What are the minimum tools needed to respond to any situation? Where is a detailed technical process needing to be documented and when is a simple process flow needed to guide a decision process?
We run an organisational resilience benchmark survey and stress testing plans is consistently the lowest scoring indicator. BC professionals know that validation is essential and is where the step changes in improvement are generated, but still struggle to get time or buy-in to conduct exercises. Keep trying to find the time, and to find the champions who do see the benefit of testing plans.
Exercises don’t have to be complex. It’s all about practising and building the cognitive skills necessary to adapt and respond when the time comes. Run more, shorter, desktop exercises with different teams or departments and make them short, sharp and intense. People will often make time in their calendars for the experience if they hear from others that they were fun, interesting and they could see clear outcomes.
A massive thank you to Roger Sutton (EA Networks) for letting us run with his fantastic analogy.
Recovery is often described as a marathon, not a sprint. But a marathon implies a set distance, a set route and it is a lone endeavour. Crisis recovery is far from linear or predictable and you certainly can’t do it alone.
Think of your recovery journey more like an adventure race: you, your teammates and a distant end point marked on a map. You have to find your way through unknown terrain, unexpected obstacles, weather, emotional and physical challenges, disagreements, sleep deprivation, hunger, exhaustion, elation, excitement, and fear. You have to work together as a team to get everyone to the finish line. Sometimes you go the wrong way but, no matter what, you keep going.
What can we learn from adventure racers that we can apply to our COVID-19 recovery? Below are some typical adventure racing tips that we think will help you get through.
Look after yourself
Pay attention to hydration and nutrition. If you are going to get through a long race, you need to keep up energy levels and stay healthy.
Have a sleep strategy. Time out is important. You need to give your body and mind time to recharge so you can continue to make good decisions.
Work as a team
Have a team goal.Make sure everyone on the team is racing to the same place, at the same speed. And run your own race, don’t compare yourself to others. You know what your team is capable of and you know the best strategy to get you all to the finish line.
Know your teammates' strengths and weaknesses.Everyone has good days and bad days and everyone responds differently to stressful situations. Teammates have to lift each other up when someone is in a slump. Having a team with diverse strengths is a real advantage here.
Communicate. You can’t make decisions that are best for the team if you don’t know how the team is doing. Teammates have to be open and honest with each other about how they are coping and around any concerns they have about their progress in the race.
Start at the pace you can finish at. It’s better to start slow and speed up than to accidently burn all your energy and resources before you reach the finish line.
Think smart not fast. Taking a little extra time to plan a better route or taking time to refuel and rest can mean the difference between finishing and not finishing. Always take time to check your decisions amongst your team and be confident that they are the best, most energy efficient decisions.
Manage your crash risk
Avoid crashes that could end your race.There is always a risk of crashing. This is heightened during a race by fatigue, unfamiliar terrain and the drive to do well. You will need to take risks but don’t be reckless. Actively monitor the risk and adjust your speed to reduce the chances of catastrophic crashes that could end your race.
Have an exit strategy
Have a DNF (did not finish) policy. When you’re in the heat of a race it can be difficult to objectively know when you have reached your limit. Pushing too far can impact your ability to compete in other races. You need to identify some clear indicators that mean it’s time to pull out of the race.
Always know where you are. Know what is behind you and what is ahead of you. Know what the weather is doing and how your team is coping. Constantly be on the lookout for changing conditions.
Carefully plan your route. One of the common downfalls of adventuring racing teams is poor navigation. Poor navigation means teams are covering more distance and expending more energy than they need to. This can be demoralising. You need to study the map, assess the route options and choose the path best suited to the strengths of your team and any other conditions. And if you get it wrong, you need to reset and adjust your course.
Applying this to COVID-19
The recovery race ahead will be challenging for many organisations. The exact path you will follow, the obstacles you will face and how long it will take will be unclear. But if you look after yourself, play to your team strengths, pace yourself, and plan, monitor and adjust your course to maintain forward momentum, you will give yourself a fighting chance of reaching the finish line.
For many people, work has a social component; we enjoy the day-to-day interactions with colleagues in the office. When that is taken away with the need for remote working, it is important to bring your team together not only for work-related meetings but for social interaction as well.
Here are some ideas for ways to stay connected with your team and have some fun.
Recreate the Friday feeling in the team – plan some fun for that time when your team probably just want to kick back and unwind. We have been holding weekly fun quizzes on a Friday afternoon that have proved a hit – it’s a good way to finish the week together.
Create a virtual tearoom – set up a time when your team can join up online during their lunch or tea break, letting them catch up as they would in the office.
Online fun and games - get your team together and try:
Vlogging your surrounds – get team members to take turns giving a tour of their remote working space.
Online board games or a trivia quiz.
‘Show and learn’ sessions – come up with a topic to research and discuss together or perhaps take a virtual group tour exploring famous and interesting places together.
Create a story - each person writes a chapter.
Friendly team challenges - a fitness challenge can also boost wellbeing – a win-win situation!
Dress up days - organise a team meeting with a fancy dress theme or crazy hat day.
Make these virtual events opt-in. Be explicit that all are welcome but are not obligated to join. And remember that short and often may be better than long and infrequent.
When faced with a problem or crisis, there is a natural tendency to make that our sole focus. It can be hard to stand back, be truly creative, and look for the opportunities.
Opportunities come in many forms and usually take a deliberate effort to bring to fruition. It may be a new commercial opportunity, such as a new service or product or market. Or it may be doing things differently within your business operations, even addressing long-standing issues that never quite made it to the top of the to-do list.
Change Creates Opportunities
In a crisis, there is rapid change and with the current pandemic, the changes will keep coming for some time. Not all of them will affect you directly or immediately, but there will be changes that ripple out, affecting your business, your customers, and suppliers. Most of these changes are very hard to anticipate with any degree of certainty or detail.
In this environment it is important to keep looking out for the opportunities and taking time to explore or develop them, rather than constantly firefighting, reacting to problems and trying to re-establish some sense of normality.
This takes a different mindset, a deliberate stepping back, making time, clearing your mind and thinking creatively. It is often good to do it in a change of scene or with others. Apply your mind to it while going for a walk, schedule an online meeting with your team to talk about it, or seek others who may be able to contribute fresh ideas or perspectives.
Opportunities can come in many forms. The 1998 Auckland power crisis resulted in new investment for a much more reliable electricity supply; the Christchurch earthquakes enabled both public and private infrastructure to be built back better; even the horror of the Christchurch mosque attacks opened our eyes and hearts to addressing prejudice in our community.
The COVID Opportunities
In the COVID context, many governments are creating opportunities for “shovel ready” infrastructure projects. In New Zealand, the newly established Climate Change Commission has highlighted the opportunity for stimulus projects to enhance climate change resilience. Ways to support new employment initiatives beyond infrastructure are also being looked at.
But the greatest innovation and opportunities will come from individuals and businesses applying their minds and resources to come up with creative new ways of adapting to our changed circumstances.
With many retailers having to shut their doors during lockdown, some businesses have turned to online trading instead. It has already forced businesses to change the way staff work internally, as well as interactions with customers and suppliers. This adjustment has been hard for some, but for others, it is opening new possibilities such as more flexible employment practices, reduced travel costs, and more efficient online processes.
Whether there are opportunities will depend on your circumstances and imagination. For example, with movement still restricted, there may be opportunities for some businesses to undertake maintenance or refurbishment while customers are absent. In manufacturing, there are overseas examples of 3D printers that were used to make aeroplane parts now producing ventilators. Some commentators suggest the emphasis on health is extending beyond COVID and into healthier diets, exercise and lifestyle, providing opportunities for new services and products.
How can you adapt to take advantage of these changes?
As we progress and adjust to the many places are easing restrictions during the current COVID crisis, some businesses are upping their activity. Whether this is forestry workers restarting or restaurants moving to a takeaway service, every bit helps. But we are still a long way from any sort of normal and for many organisations life will be relatively unchanged from Level 4. It is important that we keep doing the things necessary to look after ourselves and each other.
There are things we have to do, like continuing with physical distancing to reduce the chances of COVID re-emerging. Here are some other things to keep doing to help your business recovery:
Keep your staff informed about what is going on in your business.
Even if it is unchanged from Level 4, let them know. Whether your staff are continuing to work from home, able to return to work or not able to work at all, check-in regularly to see how they are coping.
Communicate with your customers and suppliers.
Let them know what your plans are, whether you are fully open, partially open, or still closed during Level 3. Maintaining relationships and trust is critically important for recovery. Be open and honest and ask for help if you need it.
Keep looking for opportunities to do things differently as the new normal emerges.
These may be new products or services, or changes to the way you provide existing services. Developing a greater online presence is an obvious example for many organisations, but what else is appropriate for your business?
There is still a lot of uncertainty as to what the future may look like for many businesses.
A good way to plan in these circumstances is imagine different future scenarios and identify how you may respond under each scenario. Think about trigger points or thresholds at which you need to take some other action.
Keep an eye on your cash flow.
Stay aware of further assistance that may be available from the Government or other sources, get advice if you need it and manage your creditors and debtors. If you are struggling to stay afloat, go back to your creditors and see if there is room to move. Even if they have previously said no, they may be willing to re-negotiate rather than lose your business. If you think your business is sound but you need to borrow to manage in the short-term then do it, but be honest with yourself and your bank: it is in no-one’s interest to go out of business in a few months with a larger debt.
Focus on things you can control.
The road to recovery is long and uncertain. Spend your energy in areas that you can influence and accept that things may change.
Recovery is the long game of adjusting and re-building your organisation for a new normal and beyond. As we adjust to lockdown, most of us are still thinking response, getting through the short-term actions on our to do list. Over time we will transition from response to recovery.
While every organisation is different, there are some things we know from past crises that will help your organisation recover. Here are five things to keep in mind as you respond to the current crisis that will help your long-term recovery.
Be prepared for the long haul.
Crises always last longer and are more complex than you first think.
This should already be apparent for most of us, but the cascading impacts of the current crisis will continue for a long time – think many months or years, rather than weeks.
Look after yourself, your family and your team. If you are working, watch the workload and stress levels for yourself and your team. Don’t burn yourself out.
Envisage the future.
Scenarios are a good way to envisage and plan for an uncertain future. We cannot predict the future with any certainty and research has shown that decision making for situations that we have not previously experienced or considered is problematic.
So, look ahead for 1, 3, 6, 12, 18 months and start asking “what if…” questions. What possible and diverse scenarios exist for demand and revenue? Critical supplies or costs? Retention and availability of staff? Can you change the way you provide your product or service? Are there trigger points at which you need to make critical decisions?
Consider what scenarios may be relevant for your business and how you could respond. Try and make decisions that leave you positioned for a range of possible futures.
Keep recovery in mind
Although it may seem the crisis will never end, it will.
What can you do now to enable you to get going again quickly when we get into recovery?
Plan ahead, discuss options with staff, suppliers, and customers. Your plan may need to change depending on future events, but it will be easier and faster to get going if you have thought about it in advance.
Do the right thing.
Some actions may help in the short-term but have poor outcomes in the longer term.
This is particularly important when it involves your organisation’s reputation, either internally among staff or externally with customers and suppliers. If you are perceived as acting selfishly or against the interests of those you depend on, it will negatively impact on goodwill and willingness to support your organisation’s recovery.
Keep communicating: upwards, downwards and outwards.
As we immerse ourselves in responding to the crisis, it is easy to forget how important it is to share and listen to those that we depend on or who depend on us.
Provide regular business updates, sharing what you know, what you are doing and planning, and what you want them to do. Ask for updates from others. Be open, honest, and listen for feedback. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it – even if it is simply asking for patience and understanding as you work through what needs to be done. If nothing has changed since your last update, say so – even that is keeping people informed.
Good communication will grow relationships and set you up for recovery.