Getting ready to run again (whilst almost drowning!)

Icefall at the Falljökull glacier in Skaftafell, Iceland

Icefall at the Falljökull glacier in Skaftafell, Iceland – reflecting an almost impossible climbing challenge ahead.

It feels like we are drowning”

The coronavirus crisis has hit the world in full force. There is an enormous impact this crisis is having on people´s health, the way we live, with things like shopping, travelling, exercising (or not) and whether we even work or not.

It is also all-encompassing. It seems that almost all our attention goes to understanding what is really going on around us and how it affects our lives and those of our families and friends.

“It feels like we are drowning” is a phrase I have been hearing from people around me. Drowning, in the sense that we have no swimming technique or even safe floating devices that will help us cope in these unknown times. And, naturally, the pivotal thing is to not drown, to stay afloat. So logically that is where our personal efforts go into. And it is also what we see in most businesses right now. Working hard to ensure we are there when, eventually, the tide will turn and life will start to get back to some form of normality.

Although perhaps difficult to think about as yet, this might be the right time to start thinking and preparing for that time.


Well mainly because it seems that in these tough times, in the panic that we face when the water starts to reach our lips, we have reshaped very, very quickly our businesses to avoid drowning. And, swimming for dear life requires profoundly different ways of operating than running on terra firma towards the strategic goals that we have. Or once had.

It is clear that this is territory that no one has yet ventured into on the scale that it is facing us right now. That is true for all levels of our organisations from senior management at the very top down to the people working at the operational front line.

Getting ready…

We know that every downturn will eventually come to an end and lead to an upturn again. In many countries the curves we have so carefully been monitoring start to show signs of slowing down or even going down. 

So, this might be exactly the right time to mobilise key people that may currently not be involved in the day to day operations of our companies because of the lockdown. Rather than furlough them, or even lay them off.

“This crisis presents an opportunity to take bold actions and show leadership and solidarity,” said Saadia Zahidi, managing director of World Economic Forum.

There are some key questions that are coming to mind when we think about the challenge we face to start running again once we crawled out of the water, drenched but alive. 

Questions like:

  • how can we start up our operations again? And do this safely without jeopardising our people?
  • will our customers and suppliers be ready on time? In other words: how ready will our supply chains be?
  • can we mobilise and possibly “re-onboard” our staff on time?
  • and so on and so forth

And in our so very connected world we know that we cannot be in control of much of our own destiny in addressing this type of questions. So accept that and incorporate this in the thinking.

There are multiple, well-respected, sources that would underline what my recommendation would be on how to deal with those questions right now.

  • Show leadership. This is what people need in uncertain times. Carefully look at all your stakeholders and make dedicated plans to keep them up to date with the state and readiness of your business and help them get ready alongside your journey to avoid you having to wait for them or them for you. In these delicate times each mismatch could still cause your business to fold.
  • Use agile approaches. Don´t assume you can start up your key processes in one big bang. Create a whole list of prioritised activities you believe you need to put in place to start running your key value add processes again. For now, forget the nice to haves. Consider max 2 weeks focus periods implementing the top 5 or so elements of your plans. Then recalibrate. And so on. Start building the organisational model for that now. Ensure you have the facilitators and tools for this ready now. Start training your people in how this will work. Now.
  • Set clear performance criteria. Some of these agile ways of working may well be the future way of working for your business. Yes, this is an opportunity to weed out dead weight in your processes. But some processes will need to revert back to the established operating model. Be clear up front what the exit criteria would need to be to switch on again these old processes.
  • Engage all your stakeholders in this process. You cannot recalibrate from an office or a meeting room. Your operational people will know when the signs look good or bad. Listen to them. Your customers and suppliers know what they need and what their capabilities are at any given time. Talk to them, continuously. Ensure they are part of the agile teams that address the processes they are involved in. This, in itself, may create a legacy you would never have imagined was possible.

… to run again

This preparation may save us many months of confusion and chaos and potentially save us millions. Because once the world slowly gets back to its business, a prepared business is ready to run much earlier than businesses that have not been able to look ahead.

Is this type thinking only valid in moments of crisis? Of course not.

But if the business environment I am seeing around us right now is anything to go by, these are unique times, and they require us to answer the now most likely very existential wicked question:

How can we prepare to start running again right now whilst we believe we are drowning.