Willie’s Blog Posts

Leading Through A Crisis: How to Learn Our Way to Success


“Darwin asserted that if anyone or anything is to survive in this world, it must learn to adapt.”
 – James Simon

Human progress depends on our ability to learn and adapt. All the major advances in history have involved a process of discovery, much of it based on trial and error. The graphic below describes the four revolutions that have ushered in the modern era. *

four revolutions in history

The agrarian age lasted for about 10,000 years, the industrial age for 200, the information age for 50, and the conceptual age is a mere 20 years old. We can sum up recent progress in one word: acceleration. Our challenge is to cope with increasing disruption and change. As Virginia Rometty, the former CEO of IBM, put it: “In the future, the most important quality any worker can possess will be the propensity to learn”.

Learning in a crisis

At times of crisis our ability to learn rapidly becomes the overriding factor for success, and often of our survival. However, the specific learning techniques we apply must match the situation we face. In other words, we must learn strategically. Crises fall into two basic prototypes – Episodic Crises and Emergent Crises. As described below, each demands its own unique method of learning.

Episodic Crises

These are sudden, catastrophic, and short-lived events, but they leave an aftermath of destruction. Examples are natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes, or occurrences like the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

The main form of learning required in these situations is the After-Action Review (AAR). It is a simple but powerful methodology, responding to these questions: What was meant to happen? What actually happened? Why did it happen? How can we prevent it from happening again?

The US military has perfected this technique and applies it rigorously after every engagement or simulation. I have participated in a number of simulations at the US Army War College and have been struck by the unwavering ability of the facilitators to arrive at “ground truth,” which is often painful to acknowledge. The process requires intellectual and moral honesty, a relentless pursuit of root causes, a “no blame” mentality and delivery of specific plans to address any problems. The learning is then disseminated across the entire military system, thus producing a shared process of improvements over time.

Some years ago, on a visit to Tokyo, I woke up in the middle of the night in my hotel room with my bed shaking. It was pronounced but unthreatening, and in a way quite pleasant. Some beds have vibration as a feature, and I wondered whether this bed had been activated by mistake. After a few minutes the shaking stopped, and, undeterred, I went back to sleep.

The next morning, I heard the dramatic news. Tokyo had been struck by a major earthquake the night before. But my hotel, apart from some broken crockery, was unscathed. So were the vast majority of buildings in Tokyo. Japan has learned systematically from a long history of earthquakes and has devised creative methods of constructing virtually “earthquake proof” high-rise buildings that have saved thousands of lives.

It is chilling but noteworthy that every time there is a plane crash, aviation gets safer. The industry is relentless in its quest to identify the root causes of failures. Once the diagnosis is complete, the learning is rapidly shared across the industry. The statistics on airline safety testify to the success of this approach. In 1959 there were 40 fatal accidents per million departures in the US. Today, there are 0.1 per million, despite the vast increase in air traffic.

 After the appalling tragedy on 9/11, an AAR was conducted by an impartial national commission. The investigation revealed a harsh reality – the failure to synthesize early warning signals that had been identified in different parts of the sprawling US intelligence system. With the benefit of a holistic picture, this catastrophe could potentially have been prevented. The result of this finding was the creation of the Director of National Intelligence, whose job it is to coordinate information picked up in the numerous intelligence agencies and thereby keep the nation safer.

Every organization can master the AAR method of learning from its successes and failures. This is, after all, how science learns. The task always is to ensure that the value of the learning is bigger than the cost of mistakes.

To bring this down to earth, we can draw inspiration from a farmer’s homespun philosophy when his cow falls into a ditch. First, get the cow out of the ditch; then find out why the cow fell into the ditch; and finally ensure the cow never falls into the ditch again.

Emergent crises

These crises involve a relentless flow of escalating harm, where both the cause and the solutions are uncertain, and where there is no clear end point. The current pandemic is a prime example. Emergent crises differ from episodic crises in fundamental ways and require a totally different kind of learning.

The challenge in these cases is to make rapid choices in a fast-moving environment, with incomplete information. If the growth of the crisis outpaces our ability to adapt, chaos would ensue. This demands a process of dynamic learning and continuous recalibration as events unfold.

Learning our way through the crisis

Here, based on the best evidence, are the key learning methods to apply at both the governmental and organizational levels in an emergent crisis:

Frame the challenge

The springboard for shared learning is to frame the challenge in a clear and honest way, so that everyone can understand the nature of the problem and “the reason why” for the tough choices that will follow. Vivid metaphors and examples help to simplify the issues. Statements like, “The virus respects no boundaries,” and “When you keep yourself safe, you keep me safe,” help shape the right behaviors.

Create a dynamic measurement system

To successfully navigate a fast-moving crisis, our learning methods must involve a process of continuous assessment and re-assessment. Such iterative learning loops help us interpret ongoing changes and calibrate our decisions in real time. The goal is to adapt to new circumstances as they emerge. This kind of fast learning is fueled by a measurement system with the following attributes:

It is selective

Measurement performs two essential functions: it communicates to everyone what is important; and it tracks progress. Good measurement systems are highly selective. They concentrate on the four to five critical drivers of performance. To measure everything is a declaration of confusion – an admission that we don’t know what is important. Think of the gauges in the cockpit of an aircraft. There is limited space. The key is to select the critical measures of performance that the pilot can absorb at a glance. Cram too many gauges into the cockpit, and you will muddle the pilot and endanger the passengers.

It is simple and consistent

Good measures make sense to everyday people and become a source of learning for them. Consistency ensures that we are always comparing like with like. Constantly changing what we measure not only causes disorientation, it arouses suspicion that we may be practicing deception.

It tracks both leading and lagging indicators

Leading indicators are our early warning system. Lagging indicators look back and tell us how we have performed. A key leading indicator in the pandemic is the rate of infection – the so-called R factor. A rate below 1 means the infections are declining and we can continue to open up. If the rate climbs above 1, this tells us an outbreak is occurring and that we need to apply the brakes and increase suppression. Watching the R factor helps us rapidly implement remedial actions before being overwhelmed. The hospitalization and death rates, on the other hand, are lagging indicators. They reflect the results of our inputs.

It measures trends, not snapshots

Snapshots tell us nothing. They are not comparative. A graphic depiction of a trend can show us at a glance whether we are heading in the right or wrong direction. Trends tell a story, reveal the need for action, and underscore the urgency of proposed initiatives. They help everyone feel part of the journey.

It disaggregates the data

Aggregated data provide nothing more than an average, and averages have only one role in life – to disguise the truth. Furthermore, it is impossible to manage an average. We can only manage its component parts, and then the average will move. To deal effectively with a pandemic, disaggregation is essential. The data needs to be classified by factors such as demographics, location, co-morbidity, behavior patterns, etc. This breakdown enables us to determine causation, isolate problems, and solve them at their source.

We tend to glorify leadership and relegate management to a secondary role. Of course, good leadership is always necessary. We need a sense of direction, clear priorities, and an inspiring message. But in an escalating crisis, that is not enough. Given the complex analytical and logistical challenges such a crisis brings, one reality emerges clearly – the need for sheer management competence. This involves not only analytical rigor, the ability to cope with ambiguity, navigate trade-offs, and make tough decisions; it requires effective project coordination, relentless follow-up, and the ability to manage messy ground-level operations.

This pandemic will inescapably cause immense health and economic damage. However, we have been forced to invent new, ingenuous ways of doing things, particularly working more effectively at a distance. Many of these benefits will endure and serve us well in the future.

Twitter has already advised its employees that most of them can continue to work from home indefinitely. This will save commuting time and office expenses, reduce pollution and, based on their experience, preserve efficiency.

We have discovered more effective ways of delivering healthcare via telemedicine. We have now seen that routine medical evaluations can be efficiently conducted via Facetime and the like. Speaking for myself, this has been a boon. To enable this, I simply needed to purchase a blood pressure monitor, a pulse oximeter, and a device that can measure my heart rhythm via my smartphone. With the aid of these inexpensive tools, my physician can monitor my vital signs without my needing to travel to a medical office and sit in a crowded room waiting to be seen. My guess is that I save about half a day by having these examinations done online. Telemedicine methods will no doubt improve even further over time and hold the promise of transforming the delivery of medical services.

Those of us who teach have had to adapt to the virtual method during this prolonged “stay at home” period. This has compelled us to reexamine our entrenched assumptions about how students learn. We have found new ways to enhance the social connections and interactivity that enrich online learning.  Of course, online methods are not the same as in-person education. But we have learned that they offer benefits such as flexibility, variety and reach. The choice between the two models is not binary. I believe these methods will prove to be mutually beneficial. Education faces an exciting future in which we discover how to harness a dual channel approach to create a more creative and stimulating educational experience than traditional methods have been able to deliver.

* Section headings titles courtesy A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink

Posted by Willie Pietersen at 3:12 PM | 0 Comments

Leading Through The Pandemic Crisis: The Trust Factor

Five ways leaders can maintain a high level of trust in a crisis

Trust is a vital requirement in any leadership endeavor. But the coronavirus pandemic has raised the stakes to historic levels. We are faced with conditions that are mortally threatening, fraught with uncertainty, and shifting rapidly. In these frightening circumstances, trust in our leaders has become the indispensable factor.

The situation is entirely new, with few guidelines from the past. We have urgent questions: “When will the number of cases reach their peak? Will the healthcare system be able to cope? When will there be a diagnostic test, an antibody test, a therapy, a vaccine? When will things return to normal? The common answer from the experts is, “We don’t know. We have not seen this before. We are in learning mode.”  Meanwhile, during the shutdown, a vast number of people have lost their livelihood and wish for a rapid opening up of the economy. We are navigating a delicate balance between safety and financial security.

A loss of trust in our leaders amidst this crisis would have devastating consequences. This raises the question: What are the essential building blocks of trust?

Some years back, I was advising a professional services firm whose vision was to become a “trusted advisor” to its clients. I was asked to research the subject of trust and come up with a set of factors that were concrete and measurable. Trust is a complex field with nuanced answers. Nevertheless, I distilled what I learned into 5 key pillars of trust. My client applied these elements successfully in their client service model. My investigation revealed that we will trust our leaders if we believe the following 5 things are true about them:

They understand my needs

Leadership is not about power; it is about service. The first task of a leader is to “tune in” to the needs and expectations of his followers.

When Nelson Mandela was released from prison and elected president in South Africa, he faced the prospect of a racial conflict born of years of resentment. Yet against all odds he achieved a peaceful transition to a representative democracy. He was offering the blacks the chance to participate as equal citizens, but at the same time he recognized that the whites were afraid they would face a switch from being the oppressors to becoming the oppressed. Acting on this insight, Mandela took steps to demonstrate his genuine love for all South Africa’s citizens and his determination to create a “rainbow nation.”

His most dramatic action, seen by millions on TV, was his enthusiastic support for the almost all-white South African rugby team when they won the world cup in 1995. It was a hugely unifying moment. Mandela saw that “The struggle was not so much about liberating the blacks from bondage, it was about liberating white people from fear,” according to commentator Tokyo Sexwale.  Mandela’s understanding of the concerns of his fellow citizens was a pivotal factor in his majestic achievement.

They have the skills to solve my problem

Empathy alone is not sufficient. Leaders must have the ability to act on it. They must demonstrate competence.

The current pandemic calls for mastery of a special kind of competence: adaptive planning in the face of fast-moving events fraught with risk and uncertainty. Former military general and US president Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is everything.” In dynamic conditions it is the planning process that matters above all else. This demands a system of constant assessment and re-assessment based on a fearless, fact-based analysis of emerging realities.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo provides daily briefings on the coronavirus, showing trends, explaining their significance, defining the learning, and describing what must be done, when, and by whom. Polls show that the citizens of NY State feel that their destiny rests in capable hands.

In a crisis, it is a mistake to try and go it alone as the “heroic leader.” People support what they help to build. I recently read how a CEO of a manufacturing business involved his employees in creating the right solutions. His only injunction was: “Please work together to build a working environment in which you feel safe.” They were amazingly creative. They built a tent at the front entrance, and as employees passed through it at the beginning and end of the day, they were sprayed with a special sanitizer they themselves had devised in the plant. Disinfected vans transported everyone to work and home again, so that public transportation was avoided. Finally, they introduced ingenious ways of practicing social distancing at the plant while maintaining productivity. Everyone took pride of ownership in their plan.

They care about my success

Effective leaders are selfless, always placing the interests of their followers above their own. Motive is determinative in issues of trust, and people feel betrayed when a leader is seen to be pursuing self-serving aims. It is in our actions that we reveal our true intentions. “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say,” said the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson.

On a personal level, I was deeply influenced by a patriotic act on the part of my father during World War Two. There was no conscription in my native South Africa, yet in 1942 my father decided to volunteer and leave his family to serve a cause he believed in. As a young boy I vividly remember listening to the discussions around the kitchen table. My mother kept asking why he was prepared to put himself in harm’s way in a war so far away from home. His simple reply was, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

Mercifully, my father returned safely at the end of the war. Because of his selfless example of service to others, I have remained keenly aware of the importance of moral courage – stepping up to a challenge based on principle rather than expediency, and facing the risks involved.

Former New York City mayor Ed Koch was known for spontaneously asking strangers he encountered, “How am I doing?” I think he was asking the wrong question. It centered on him. I suggest the right question should have been, “How are you doing?” And then to listen intently to the answers.

They keep their promises

Consistency lies at the heart of effective leadership. Good leaders keep their promises, large and small. If we break our small promises, we won’t be believed when we make large ones.

Promises should be made with care, not bravado. During my time as a CEO, it became necessary to sell off one of our subsidiary companies. The question was whether to tell the affected employees in advance or simply wait until the sale was a fait accompli. The arguments went in both directions. I came to the view that communicating upfront was the best course despite the risks of destabilizing the business. These things are seldom kept secret anyhow, and rumors produce a perverted version of the truth. Then, when the time comes to let them know the details, distrust has already set in.

But what promises could I offer them? At the meeting I told them that I was unable to guarantee continuity of employment by a new owner. But I did make this promise: I would try my hardest to find the buyer most likely to keep the people, provided I could also serve the shareholders with a reasonable price for the business. It was a difficult meeting, but the employees understood the logic and appreciated the promises I made. The business remained steady.

Ultimately, we found a buyer who was prepared to keep most, but not all the employees. The outcome was not perfect, but the employees saw that I had tried my best as promised. The resulting goodwill was very gratifying, and all the other employees in the company shared in the positive feeling that we had behaved in a principled way.

They are truth-tellers

To tell the truth is to have faith in your people. Leaders sometimes believe that they can handle bad news, but that the people below them are unable to do so. This assumption is not only arrogant; it is false. Character and fortitude are not functions of rank. People can usually handle unpleasant truths, but have difficulty dealing with the withholding of truth.

The golden rule, particularly in times of crisis is to tell the unvarnished truth – no sugar coating, no spin. Here again I cite the example of Governor Andrew Cuomo. New York State has become the epicenter of the pandemic. The situation is dire. In his daily briefings Cuomo always emphasizes that he will start with what the data says; good bad or indifferent. Only then will he offer his opinion and talk about the decisions that must follow. “The shared truth must guide us,” he insists.

There is a need to guard against the confirmation bias and the allure of preconceived ideas. It is easy to deceive through omission. Picking out favorable data and leaving out or de-emphasizing negative information distorts truth and misdirects behavior. This can undermine the ability of citizens to successfully manage their personal lives through the crisis.

Leaders must have the courage to make tough decisions in the face of uncertainty. The pandemic is moving rapidly, and the realities change daily. It is essential to adjust promptly to evolving circumstances. Making the wrong calls can cost lives, but delay can be even more costly.

Mistakes are inevitable. But it is important for leaders to have the humility to admit their mistakes. Denmark seems to be managing the pandemic with relative success. One reason is cultural. Citizens trust their government. When their prime minister, Mette Fredericksen, laid out the guidelines she said, “This is a new situation to all of us. Will I make mistakes? Definitely! Will you? Yes, you also. But we must listen and learn from each other.”

Herein lies the lesson. Admitting mistakes presents an opportunity to learn from them. Burying mistakes or denying responsibility destroys that opportunity. The goal is to ensure that the value of the learning will be bigger than the cost of the mistake. That’s what progress is made of.

TRUTH and TRUST – there’s only one letter that’s different in those two words, and maybe that’s because the one leads to the other. By striving for honesty in the face of adversity we strengthen the bonds that help us all get through the crisis together.

Posted by Willie Pietersen at 10:22 AM | 0 Comments