It’s all broken; now what? Leading and innovating through this crisis.

The effects of this pandemic and its economic corollary run deep and far. They run into the future but also into our souls and minds.

Comments from my clients recently reflect how radically different this is for each organisation.

  • ‘We’re doing in four months what had been planned for twenty four.’
  • ‘This is the opportunity of a century.’
  • ‘I don’t know if the company will exist in September.’
  • ‘We’ve completely changed how we think about risk, even though things are good for us at the moment.’
  • ‘We are so frantic, and so uncertain, that nobody seems able to think or plan more than a week ahead.’

Potential triumph or potential catastrophe. So how do we lead and innovate in these circumstances?

Mission; purpose; strategy. Givens or taken away?

For most of your organisation, they can look to you to provide the context for their work. Why are we here, what’s the strategy, how do you see our future? Once worked through with your board and team, they become the ‘givens’, the background assumptions that frame daily action.

But this crisis exactly attacks that sense of certainty. The questions now are more full of anxiety, even fear. Your task is now even more vital, the task of going back and refreshing or reaffirming the fundamentals. And doing this while under the same pressures yourself, the same concern and grinding undertow of worry.

Pause amidst the confusion.

Of course there’s no easy answer. In fact, that truth has been key to how some of my clients have engaged better with their teams. Before redefining the mission they’ve had to be genuine and clear that things are uncertain. You can’t fudge it. Show how you are coping, and rather than wave it away (‘everything’s going to be OK’) bring people into facing the scenarios that could arise.

This needs ‘reflective time’ – not quite the same as thinking time, or time in action. This time needs carving out with an axe, and looks almost the opposite to the high tempo ‘crisis management team’. It’s when you create what one client calls ‘The Pause’. Stop, go silent, let people arrive, let the rush of the to do list recede and let insight emerge. The insights come from seeing patterns, finding the source of feelings and addressing them, turning what’s discovered into wiser decisions. Usually this is where courage emerges, too.

Moving through fear, rather than denying it, gets you to where you can think clearly again, to focus on opportunity as well as danger. Acknowledging emotional fatigue and being simply present and supportive, allows us to see deeper patterns in complexity and so uncover new initiative amidst the change.

Care, simply

Caring has become key. Caring for each other on the team. Recognising – as our eyes see on the Zoom screen – our different personal circumstances; kids, pets, ill family, loneliness hovering around isolation. Caring also for our extended community, business partners and customers. Suddenly we become more sensitive to whether our systems – with robot voices and convoluted automated interactions – care enough or are experienced as cruel.

Flexible focus.

Success in business calls for tight focus, on goals, effectiveness etc, etc. Yet now we are thrown off focus. Those who will lead and innovate through this will be adaptive. Being able to shift focus leads to connecting today with a future you can craft, the big fuzzy complexity with details you can address now, your future professional community to those you can talk to now. It connects risk to possibility. Too rigid a focus on being the expert now is brittle and will catch out a lot of leaders who were good for past circumstances and not right for what’s emerging. Think also like a beginner.


The lone leader in today’s circumstances, clinging to an old strategy, coercing others into action, is doomed. The sustainable, deeply effective response will arise from generating leadership in others rather than forging ahead alone. The context has changed so much, whether the global trading environment, the overall level of economic activity or the new physical rules of work, that the set of talents needed to deal with it are also fluid. So gather diverse thinkers and doers and evoke their leadership.

Design new processes

If this is the opportunity of a century, yet we’re clouded with generalised anxiety, and nothing’s certain, how do we decide what to do? The quiet talent of great organisational leaders is great design. Designing the organisation to be responsive, adaptive, creative, swift. Designing innovation as a process that takes mission and purpose and leads to new strategies. This requires the courage to explore those ‘givens’ and where found wanting, to do the hard work of building a new set of assumptions about the future – they can only be ‘good enough’ – that enable you to work with the creative and pragmatic talents in your team to find new answers.

I believe this is a time of opportunity precisely because, across the board, it demands answers to old questions:

  • What industry are you now in? What new industry can you create because of your unique IP?
  • Who, in the end, does your organisation’s work care for? How can you do this better?
  • How are you relevant?
  • Why is it important to change?
  • What deeper purpose can you fulfil by pulling together the courage, insight and ability of everyone who is a member of the organisation’s community?

It’s humbling to work with great CEOs and executives who balance their capacity to care with an ability to think clearly, maintain a long term perspective through the fog of uncertainty and act decisively.

That’s why I’m sure the challenge to our mission and purpose that we all face at a personal and organisational level, will lead to what Umair Haque calls ‘Betterness’, rather than ‘More’.


Final word from our Culture Manager

COVID-19 has been an interesting time for us dogs. We are creatures of habit so just like humans, change can be intimidating. In fact, for many dogs, change can trigger hyper emotional reactions such as anxiety and depression. You only need to take one glance at my morose, bulldog friend, Big Poppa to see what I mean.

Because of social distancing requirements, Big Poppa’s routine has shifted dramatically.

“Big Poppa has been so sad today, I think he misses playing with the kids in the building,” Tweeted the pup’s owner. “He just watches them from the patio.”

Luckily, as we progressively flatten the curve, an end is in sight for this sensitive bulldog. Soon, he will once again be amongst the kids.

But, the question remains, what effect will the restoration of normality have on other dogs? For many of us, isolation has been a dream. We have our owners within reach 24/7. No more sad days waiting for them to return from the office, no more lonely nights waiting for them to come home from exclusively human venues like bars, clubs and restaurants.

All this is set to change. With restrictions easing the nation’s owners will soon be returning to work, and to their other exclusively human venues.

I’ve tried on several occasions to disguise myself as a human by wearing hats and sunglasses, but I’m always exposed by my irrepressible tail wagging. so no, I can’t join Barbara at her booth at Supernormal.

Now I’m lucky, I have a job at Pesel & Carr. But for other dogs, experts warn of an “extreme separation anxiety” when restrictions ease.

Animal psychology expert Dr Roger Mugford talked to the Times about what might happen when lockdown is lifted.

“With such an overload of quality time with their families, dogs are building up a huge reservoir of over-dependency,” Mugford said.

He recommends owners take recurrent 30-minute breaks away from their dogs throughout the day to help ease them into what could otherwise pose a severe culture shock.

Let’s try to make this transition as smooth as possible for ourselves and for our nation’s dogs.
Let’s be mindful and ensure tails keep wagging.