Responding vs Reacting to the COVID-19 Crisis

Article #7 in a series exploring the business world’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. This series was inspired by the America Reopens Handbook, which was created by the BizBreakthru team and is available to members

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In our last article, we described the five strategies that companies can deploy to increase the likelihood of successfully navigating a crisis. those were, briefly:

  1. Always be in crisis mode
  2. Have a clear purpose
  3. Be progressive
  4. Respond quickly, but do not react
  5. Be agile

We also ended with a comparison between reacting and responding, and cautioned communicators and business managers to try to understand the difference, but didn’t offer much guidance on how to do so. So first, here’s a quick test. Before you act, ask yourself two questions:

  1. Will this action add value to the conversation, and to my company?
  2. Is this action more likely to unify than divide my community or our society?

If you answer “yes” to both of these questions, then you are responding. If you answer “no” to either of these questions, then you are just reacting.

Of course this moment of introspection and reflection will delay your action. And of course, the resulting pause will make you uncomfortable. Nature abhors a vacuum, and so do humans. It’s why we tend to fill gaps in our speech with “umms” and “uhhs.” Smart communicators learn how to embrace silence. Even smarter ones use it to their advantage—it’s a classic interview and investigation technique, for example.

Remember that quick ≠ agile. Companies that are quick to react tend to make decisions too fast, without the benefit of analysis. Companies that are agile have systems in place that allow them to incorporate analysis into the action, which turns their reactions into responses.

While much has been said about the agile methodology — there’s a very good overview of it here — it is not the only way to maximize speed, while still incorporating feedback quickly. Organizations that have adopted this technique are called “fast-response organizations,” and they are characterized by the ability to rapidly “phase shift” between three rather different organizational “modes.”

The Three Modes of Organizing in a Crisis

“Fast-response organizations” include first responders like police, military and fire and rescue. According to Schakel and Wolbers, during a developing threat incident, these organizations “regularly transition between [three] modes of organizing, each characterized by practices that shape command, allocation and information sharing.” The three modes are:

  1. Designed. In this model, “predefined lines of command are used to mobilize scheduled resources and designated actors to discuss and decide upon an appropriate course of action to handle [an incident], which is thought likely to develop in a predictable manner.”
  2. Frontline. As the organization continues to engage in crisis response, “command is delegated to the units closest to the action by making use of ad-hoc allocated personnel, who engage in bounded improvisation to handle an incident, which is comprehended yet rapidly developing. It is a crucial mode of fast-response organizing, as frontline officers have access to concrete situational details, which are essential for navigating ambiguity and dynamism.
  3. Partitioned. As an incident rapidly develops into a crisis, where the required speed of response is high and predictability rapidly decreases, “command is formed in separated pockets of control, making use of personnel who spontaneously engage with an element of the unfolding crisis, based on their own local perceptions. The separation of the organization into distinct pockets of control likely occurs when responders are confronted with a large-scale and distributed crisis situation, and perceive the need to act immediately. In this context, control means ‘the capacity to focus on the critical tasks that will bring the incident to a non-destructive, non-escalating state.’”

Now at the same time we’re facing a health crisis, we’re also facing a criminal justice crisis, and we’re seeing the downside of the “fast-response organization” model: it breaks down quickly without constant training, and if executed without a strong and clearly defined purpose. This is why all five of these strategies are required — you cannot simply pick and choose the strategy you want. Your response to the COVID-19 crisis, the economic downturn, and to the social justice crises facing our community must incorporate all five strategies if you are to succeed.

How are you balancing speed with analysis? Let us know! Share your comments below!

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