With over five years at Doctors Without Borders, leading operations like the Ebola outbreak response in West-Africa in 2014, in Syria and Iraq during the war, and at sea rescuing refugees north of the Libyan coast, Sebastian Stein shares valuable insights on how to set the course during adversity.
What are the top management measures for responding effectively to a crisis?
The key thing to get right for top management is to understand the difference between a routine emergency and a true crisis. Simply said a true crisis is when either something completely novel happens, something we already know happens at an unprecedented scale or several known types of routine emergencies happen at the same time and have complex interactions. This pandemic is certainly a true crisis as we are looking at a completely new virus, it happens at global scale and we are most likely going to see several events at once in addition to the outbreak itself; such as collapsed healthcare systems in many countries and potentially recession in global markets
What is different in a true crisis is that existing plans and the traditional strong hierarchical leadership approach of routine emergencies won't work. Top management must set up a response that incorporates innovation - and learns fast from the mistakes that inevitably will be made.
The most important thing the leader of any organization can do is to define the goal or success parameter for the response, and keep on reminding the organization about this. It is remarkable how quickly an organization can lose track even in times of crisis.
Leaders are faced with a constant flow of information these days. The major implications of making wrong and hasty decisions during uncertainty vs. sitting things out. Can you share your thoughts on the decision making process?
In a truly novel situation such as now there are two fallacies that leaders must avoid when making decisions.
One - you are most likely not an expert on what is going on. That means that you have to bring in people with several types of competencies and backgrounds to manage the situation properly. Check your ego at the door.
Two - you cannot trust your gut reaction. Gut reactions are based on experience and can be immensely valuable in routine emergencies, but in a true crisis you need to approach the situation much more analytically. Rely on "system 2" thinking, for those who are familiar with Kahneman.
You were in West-Africa during the ebola-outbreak in 2014. Which key takeaways do you find most transferable for today?
The ebola outbreak in West-Africa was quite different from the current outbreak of coronavirus. First, the virus itself was different: different mode of infection, different reproduction number, different mortality rate and the outbreak, while massive, was restricted to fewer countries. However, some things can still be learned as that outbreak, like today's outbreak, is a completely novel situation.
Again, the value of innovation is tremendous. During the ebola-outbreak we had to invent new types of hospitals for ebola-patients but also for other patients, we had to develop new strategies for infection control and contact tracing in urban settings (which was very hard), new ways of training personnel with very specific skill sets that previously only a few handfuls of people had etc. Almost all of the existing protocols and scripts for managing an ebola outbreak had to be rewritten from the ground up.
Secondly, I'd like to highlight the importance of bringing the public along in the fight. That means making sure that information is honest, well spread and understood. Only in that way can the population be motivated to follow the instructions that are given. I saw several times how drastic measures without proper analysis of consequences and timely information backfired. It is extremely important to avoid panic, for instance.
When you find yourself in the response-phase of a crisis situation - how do you organize your day?
First off, make sure that the top manager does not manage the crisis team. Instead, establish a multi-disciplinary response team that reports to the top manager and leaves the biggest decisions to her. If the top manager is engaged in the actual response team she can't have the necessary breathing room, perspective and space to run the rest of the organization and make the right decisions for the crisis at the same time. It is very important that the top manager is not drawn into the details of the immediate crisis response.
The crisis team should meet every morning and sit together in a dedicated room with the necessary facilities. Make sure that the team has a common understanding of the current situation based on facts - not on speculations. Document all major decisions and on what grounds you make those. When new and better information arises you can more easily backtrack and revise your earlier decisions if need be. It is also important that roles are assigned. For instance, one person should be in charge of following the news and recommendations from the health authorities so that the rest of the team can be freed up to do their tasks.
What do you do to ensure a good team spirit?
Responding to a crisis can be exhausting. Make sure that your team is well taken care of. They need ample rest, healthy food and probably some physical exercise. Make sure also that their families are well taken care of and that the response team members' personal life is stable. It is impossible to focus on your job if you are scared for your loved ones. Make a plan for rotating your team to ensure rest, and have a backup plan in case someone falls ill.
Psychological safety is very important for a team. Everyone should be encouraged to speak up and new perspectives should be encouraged. Make sure that successes are considered team successes and failures are considered team failures.
Finally, lead with a smile and calm attitude. A leader's stress or nervousness can quickly spread to the rest of the organization and that won't be helpful.
What do you do to take your mind off of things?
I think exercising while listening to an audiobook is a great way to let my mind rest. Try to spend some time with your loved ones and do something fun like playing a game (or, my personal favourite, build Lego). These types of activities are also good as they remind you about what we are all working to preserve in this pandemic.
During adversity, a company’s ability to keep the wheels turning is vital. How to find a balance between handling the crisis at the same time as ensuring business as usual?
Well, this is a challenging balance, but the very existence of your company may be at the hearth of the crisis. Therefore you quite quickly need to move from "crisis response phase" into a "new normal" mode. The first phase is about protecting lives and taking deliberate but radical action to avoid bankruptcy, for example. Following that you need to start thinking more long-term and strategically. This is another example of why the top manager should not lead the crisis response team - they need to see the bigger picture.
Can something good, on both a personal and organizational level, come out of situations like these?
Yes. Crisis like these can accelerate change that was otherwise warranted like making hard prioritizations or restructuring your business. They also test our resilience and teach us valuable lessons on preparedness, for example. On a personal level I'd say crises tend to bring out the best and worst in us. Now is really the time to test your abilities as a leader - and grow.
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