Change and Coronavirus in 2020

The coronavirus presents us with an imperative for rapid transformation.

The coronavirus lockdowns are driving unprecedented levels of change across the world. The magnitude of change will challenge most organizational change models to the limit. Research has shown that as many as seventy percent of transformation projects fail*[1]. We have learned a lot in the years since then, yet many of the traps remain.

The organisational change models could not have completely envisaged the local and global threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. Radical change is being imposed upon organisations of every size in an exceptionally short time. One of the better-known models of organizational transformation is that of John Kotter, published in 1996[2] . His eight-stage model starts with establishing a sense of urgency, then creating a guiding coalition, and then developing a vision and strategy. Kotter proceeds to the fourth stage, the communication of the change vision, then empowering broad-based action. Stage six is the generation of quick-wins consolidating gains, producing more change, and then anchoring new approaches in the culture.

In the current business environment, there is no shortage of urgency, a compelling reason to act. Survival is compelling. Organisations must effect change to handle the immediate impact of the virus, and manage transformation for recovery and sustainability thereafter.

One model I encountered to assist in this journey during the coronavirus pandemic is the Cynefin decision-making framework. My knowledge of the framework arises from interest and ‘self-study’, not formal training, and I share it as a helpful structure in explaining our current COVID-19 crisis/response.

The framework consists of four major domains or decision-making contexts. In the middle of them is ‘disorder’, a state in which you do not have any idea where you are and what your next steps might be. The four domains are 'Complicated', 'Simple/Obvious', 'Chaotic', and 'Complex'. Organisations that are advanced in terms of process maturity could be fortunate in having a strong foundation in documented and implemented best practice relating to operations. This level is the simple or obvious level, the known knowns (where you know what you know) and is critical in business continuity planning and stabilising the business while addressing high impact incidents demanding change. In this domain, decision-making is simplified once one uses what one knows to identify, categorise, and respond to, the threat.

When faced with a crisis-response/change in a less mature organisation (company, department, team, project) my immediate step is to seek structure and method wherever I can. In the face of Chaos, one must immediately Act, to bring some sense of order. You must put in place the simplest controls for determining where we are and what needs to be done to keep the business going. The imperative is to create a level of certainty for all those involved.

When faced with uncertainty and ambiguity teams are comforted when structures are put in place where they do not currently exist. This is in a sense pre-empts Kotter’s sixth stage of ‘generating short-term wins’ to stabilise, buying time to create the guiding coalition (Stage 2) and develop a vision and strategy (Stage 3). Implementing a basic system that at very least creates a single view of the immediate risks, actions, issues and dependencies required (RAID), restores a sense of order. It enables an element of predictable response while the team has bought some time to assess the situation and develop next steps.


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