Published: 22 April 2020
Decision making during a crisis is often slower and less effective than it should be as most organizations apply the same processes they use under normal conditions. To address the impacts of COVID-19, executive leaders should use triage techniques that optimize the decision-making process.
A crisis brings out latent conflicts among enterprise principles and values, which do not become apparent under normal conditions, and can hamper decision making.
Decision making in a crisis is often backward-looking, and in many areas it slows further during a crisis — leaders decide on whatever issues people happen to bring to them, or the normal work cycle continues to drive the agenda.
Leaders tend to follow their natural temperament in a crisis. Some make decisions quickly, without considering the eventual or unintended consequences. Others evaluate a few options and select the best short- or long-term options. A few simply procrastinate.
As executive leaders guiding digital business transformation during a crisis like COVID-19, you should:
Modify the decision-making processes and tactics that work well in better times. To address a crisis, make deliberate trade-offs between excellent versus expedient decisions and core versus opportunistic decisions.
Ensure that the organization’s decision-making principles and values are unambiguous, and that the whole enterprise understands their meaning in the context of the current crisis.
Adopt the mindset of organizations that deal with crises regularly (i.e., emergency rooms, fire departments, police and the military), including principles, drills, scenarios and plans, by performing strategic triage.
Executive leaders feel great urgency and pressure to act during the COVID-19 crisis. Some will be tempted to jump into decision making based on existing knowledge and biases, while others will be unable to make decisions that reflect the new context. Others still will spend all of their time deliberating, gathering facts and considering short- and long-term consequences and potential outcomes.
These approaches will generally fall short. The unspoken assumption behind the first approach is that leaders will make tough choices about which decisions to prioritize and then make all of the decisions at the same level of excellence. Leaders will lavish attention on some decisions that don’t need it or that should be made quickly and ignore or shortchange other decisions because they don’t have enough time for them. In the second approach, leaders are likely to react to the crisis too slowly or in a disconnected fashion. In the third approach, leaders will often not be able to keep up with the rate of change during the crisis. Executive leaders can achieve better outcomes for their people and their enterprise if they rethink their approach to decision making. In particular, leaders should take three steps:
Make deliberate trade-offs
Review principles for consistency
Imagine an auto executive who must decide how to continue developing a new car model during the COVID-19 crisis and also which staff members should work remotely. These are disparate decisions. The product development effort has implications for suppliers, production, marketing, dealers and so on that need to be thought out carefully. A misstep could cost the automaker millions of dollars. By contrast, the automaker won’t suffer much if the executive doesn’t make an optimal decision about remote working, and the decision can always be adjusted later on. Clearly, the auto executive shouldn’t make these decisions in the same way.
During a crisis like COVID-19, executive leaders will achieve better outcomes if they take time to think about how to make decisions. Leaders must make two sets of trade-offs (see Figure 1):
Make decisions quickly (expedience) or make the best possible decisions (excellence)
Aim at achieving certain outcomes (effectiveness) or seek solutions that use the fewest resources (efficiency)
Excellence vs. expedience: Leaders usually tend to one side or the other by temperament. But following one’s instinct means suboptimal decision making. Excellent decisions take deliberation and time — leaders should think carefully about all the ramifications before shutting down a factory. However, trying to make every decision excellent consumes time and results in fewer decisions made.
Some decisions can be made quickly, such as what training to offer managers and employees during the crisis (see ). In these cases, leaders should not waste time trying to make the best possible choices; good enough will do. However, making a fast decision, which should have been an excellent decision, can lead to unexpected costs or problems. For example, a rash decision to reduce call center staff could cripple customer service at the very time customers need the most help. Thus, an unnecessary emphasis on speed can cause harm in the long run.
Effectiveness vs. efficiency: In the heat of a crisis, it’s easy to lose sight of which of these priorities is most important. Of course, it will vary, depending on the nature of the decision. For example, decisions affecting employee safety must be effective — the enterprise must achieve this goal, with cost as a secondary consideration. But the enterprise may want to support a ballooning number of remote workers at the lowest possible cost.
Use a decision and opportunity triage mechanism like the one described in Figure 1, not once, but throughout the crisis. Great triage is fluid, and as new information is identified, the priorities and opportunities can and should change. Because of this fluidity, there is a great premium on transparency, communication and effective decision making. For additional decision-making frameworks see
Core — don’t drop the ball. Focus and invest on what you can control and what is a core competency to keep your enterprise (or government department) running and positioned to grow (or improve) as the crisis evolves. This should be the main business or mission. Ultimately, it is what pays the bills. It is what must be protected. Make sure that the resources dedicated to core competencies are unimpeded.
Selective — focus on a few high-probability opportunities. Identify, prioritize and focus on a small number of strategic opportunities that could be game-changing or build new capabilities at low resource costs. In a big crisis like COVID-19, many businesses will get hit hard immediately. By definition, what was done and how it was accomplished in the past didn’t protect the enterprise. The organization must innovate and deploy new processes and procedures. And the crisis might have long-term impacts that will ultimately change the core business. Don’t try to do too much.
Incremental — do small, necessary things fast. Take fast action on short-term decisions that have a big impact on business or the current crisis at hand. If something is not core to the business, and leaders can get a quick win, take it, and do it quickly. Overanalyzing these decisions takes time away from focusing on new innovative actions and the core business or mission.
Opportunistic — shed low-value tasks aggressively. Don’t overly focus or overly invest time on activities and decisions that are not currently relevant. Build capacity by eliminating work and tasks that distract organization. Don’t delay inevitable decisions. To be successful in a crisis, an organization must be pointed in the same direction and focused on both activities that address the immediate needs and prepare for the future when it is time to rebuild.
This step may seem an unnecessary delay, but it won’t take long and will save leaders from unexpected problems later on. Every organization has principles and values that drive decision making, such as keeping employees safe and doing whatever it takes to serve the customer. Under ordinary conditions, executive leaders find it easy to uphold these principles and values; but crises are where both get truly road-tested. The pressure of a crisis brings out latent conflicts with them. What if serving the customer requires sending an employee to a location where COVID-19 is spreading? How do you decide? As a first step to making good decisions in a crisis, leaders should review their principles as well as their values and resolve any conflicts. See for a discussion of leveraging principles and values for tough decisions with unfamiliar contexts.
As conflict arises between the enterprise’s principles and values, executive leaders will need to work together transparently to make sure that the organization is pulling in the same direction. Most of these conflicts could not have been anticipated during more stable times, so quickly doing some due diligence during the crisis will help better decision making happen more quickly. The long-term benefit of this exercise is that the organization will be far more clear on what the principles and values mean and ensure that it is better prepared for any future exigency.
Don’t forget that how an organization responds in a major crisis will be remembered by customers, employees and citizens. In the long run, it is vital that the organization be seen as consistent and values-driven. See for concrete steps on how to engender trust.
Collect the organization’s principles and values, including from both formal documents (e.g., mission statements, culture traits and corporate values) and informal understanding (e.g., the way the organization “really” works). Start the next meeting by examining the list to see if the unusual circumstances of COVID-19 will create conflicts. This exercise should take only a half hour.
Identify (in behavioral and tactical ways) what each value and principle means during this COVID-19 pandemic. Test these potential actions with a broad range of individuals across the enterprise to ensure that how the organization will act makes sense and is well-understood.
Executive leaders should not let the crisis itself or traditional procedures overly drive decision making. Generally, decision making in times of crisis is performed one of three ways:
The first case presents decisions in almost random order while the second case ignores the crisis altogether. And in the third case, it becomes difficult to dig in when necessary because the organization tries to get too much done in these meetings. Make sure these meetings:
Having many meetings and communication that meander across every topic with the same level of effort can delay meaningful decision making. In any case, leaders miss opportunities to take decisive action, and don’t prepare for harmful situations and outcomes that could be predicted.
To ensure they spend their time on the most important decisions, executive leaders should adopt some of the tactics of organizations that deal with crises regularly, such as emergency rooms, fire departments, police, the military and even sports teams. These organizations excel at quickly deploying solutions in critical or fluid situations because they plan and practice for them with:
Clear principles and values
But what do you do when a crisis like COVID-19 explodes suddenly? Isn’t it too late to prepare and practice? Like most widespread crises, COVID-19’s impact on business and society will manifest over several months and years. Once the initial shock occurs and immediate actions are taken, executive leaders must develop what-if, future-state scenario planning, and examine potential outcomes and investments and model alternatives, which may include drastic restructuring and radical digitalization. No organization can survive operating in crisis mode every day for many years; it must instead revisit its decision-making processes.
Work through the foreseeable consequences of the COVID-19 crisis with your team — such as a recurrence of COVID-19 and reimposition of extraordinary measures, and admin for remote workers (e.g., work reporting and performance reviews). Develop new principle-based procedures for handling these situations.
Be willing to try new and different things. Make sure that you measure and track how well they are received by associates and customers, and their effectiveness. Use this information to shape future responses. This is your practice in the crisis. You will get it right sometimes and you will get it wrong at other times. But leverage the feedback loop to improve the odds of getting right more often as this (or the next) crisis evolves.
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