Public Leadership Through Crisis 8: You’re not ready. No one is. Prepare to work differently

8 mins read

written by Matt Andrews

I have spent 7 posts discussing leadership challenges in crisis for the leader herself or himself; what the individual needs to get ready and steady to help people through crises. In this post I am going to start pivoting to thinking about your organizational capability.

I am hoping that a wide group of people find these blogs useful, but I am writing with a particular group in mind: those responsible for mobilizing a public response (of any kind, at a school, in a sector, in a town, or a nation) in low  capability settings (especially the developing world) where there has often  been a tendency to look to outsiders for help in crises. The advice I offer is not perfect in any way, and will not always travel across contexts, and I do encourage  you to consider other resources and ideas when acting (see our seventh post for ideas), but I—and my team—are offering what we can, given our capabilities, and I won’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good here (I think these are good  ideas and they can be helpful, even if more work could make them better—remember this is a key to remember from post 3).

I have been in touch with a number of leaders faced with the COVID-19 pandemic in the last week or so, and I sense real concern that their organizations and systems do not have the capabilities needed to weather the current storm. In this blog I  want  to agree, but also encourage you: You’re not ready. No one is. Prepare to work differently, with what you have.


So, you are asking if you have the capability to address this crisis. The answer from me is that you do not. No one does.  But you probably have more latent capability than you know, and can deal with the crisis better than you think if you mobilize it in new ways.

What do I mean? Let me start by reflecting on how I look at capabilities. Such reflection is particularly vital in the event of a crisis, where leaders are wondering how much capability they have in the face of a new threat.

I define capability as ‘the empowered ability to get something done’ and especially to solve problems. I won’t bore you with the literature that helped me come to this definition, but will describe what I mean by the definition. In short, I see this as much more than ability—or competence—which is often what people talk about when they refer to capability.

Ability is central to capability. It is what your people have been trained to do, either formally or informally, through books or on-the-job experience or via peer engagements (etc), and what other resources they have (computers, materials, etc.).

When people tell me they are concerned about their system capability, I find they are often referring to limited abilities: “We just don’t have  the knowledge or resources to solve this problem.” But ability needs to be empowered to actually solve problems (and hence be a real capability) and there are three crucial dimensions that empower or disempower ability: authority, acceptance, and mobilizing  processes. Watch the following video for a description of all four dimensions, and  how they interact to influence your capability. [Note that we use this video for an online course on Implementing Policy, so please ignore references to that course but listen to the ideas.]

My view (described in the video) is that your system’s capability is influenced by:

  • The abilities it is endowed with (skills and resources),
  • Its authority mechanisms (structures, relationships that empower use of skills, resources),
  • What people accept to do (intrinsic motivation empowering use of skills, resources), and
  • The organizational mobilizing processes you have to connect the other dimensions.

Now, we need to realize that our system’s capabilities were developed to do the things we currently do (where we know what we are trying to do, and how to do those things). Think about it: we define who we hire according to the specific jobs we want them to do; and our authorization structures are shaped to achieve objectives that we know how to achieve; and our motivational structures (affecting  acceptance) reflect existing motivational needs; and our processes are engineered to achieve what we know and are already focused on achieving.

In a crisis, unfortunately, the capabilities we already have in place are seldom the right ones. Crises pose new problems to our systems, that are full of  unknowns and uncertainties, because they involve threats that we have not had to deal with in the past. So, we cannot expect to have the right abilities or authorizing mechanisms or acceptance patterns or mobilizing processes. And, if no one has faced this crisis before (as is the case with COVID-19), everyone is in the same boat; no one has the right capability to deal with this. 

I don’t say this to be pessimistic. On the contrary. I say it to encourage all those people who say their systems do not have the capabilities. Because the sooner you recognize that your system’s capability weaknesses are a norm, not an exception, the sooner you can realize that  the challenge of leadership through   crisis is about building your capabilities, rapidly, to address the specific new problem (or set of problems) you face. And I believe  that every system has significant potential to build its capabilities, rapidly, in the face of crisis.

Most people will focus on ramping up their abilities quickly, looking for the right new abilities from external sources (finding or hiring people they  think are best suited to the new problem, finding new knowledge, bringing in new resources, etc.). This is a very important part of any crisis response and I encourage you to do as much of it as you can (which is one reason we are running these blogs, to provide some rapid knowledge to you). This approach has its limits, however, especially when it is hard to identify ‘the right’ abilities for the problem at hand, or when abilities are not mobile, or when abilities are expensive.

There are other strategies to deploy where you are (not looking externally), that center on empowering the abilities you have (and fostering internal processes to build those abilities). These strategies involve changing your authorizing and acceptance structures and adopting new mobilizing structures to empower people in your context to do things differently, so that they have opportunities to reveal latent abilities and find new abilities, rapidly.

I  have worked with governments to make these organizational shifts and rapidly expand their capabilities to solve pressing problems, and seen them succeed. So I promise you it CAN be done.   

One reason I am so confident is that I find people in all governments I have worked with have more ability than they are typically empowered to use. These are people who have been trained to do things they are not currently mobilized to do, or to think in creative ways they are not currently authorized to, or to take risks in ways they are not motivated to. In observing this latent ability I  have come to realize that capability constraints are seldom the result of weak abilities; such constraints are, rather, the result of authorizing, acceptance, and mobilizing structures, norms, and procedures that  do not empower extant, internal abilities to show.

Authorizing, acceptance, and mobilizing structures often also limit the organic growth of internal abilities, especially by limiting learning-by-doing. This is extremely unfortunate, as the learning-by-doing  process is probably the oldest and surest way of building tacit know-how in any system. Giving your people a role in a  problem solving process, and allowing them to experiment and learn (in an  appropriately structured way) can and will generate new know-how and ability, and is often the best way  to find solutions to new problems occurring in your own back yard. 

The bottom line is this: Yes, you probably don’t have the capability (now) to face this crisis. But nobody really does either. Which means that the challenge of leadership is to build that capability, where you are, as you move through this crisis. It can be done. But you as a leader will need to  work differently—empowering people differently through new authorizing and motivational structures and processes.

In the next few posts I will give you some of my  own ideas about working  differently, based on the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation method (PDIA) we have been deploying at the Building State Capability program. It is the best set of ideas I have to share, and I  know that the ideas have been used (without the PDIA acronym or any purposeful model) in other crisis situations—like the Liberian Ebola crisis described in another blog post by Peter Harrington. There are other processes you can deploy to work differently, and I will be putting links to these up progressively on the Blog post 7 (the additional resources page)—so please don’t see my use of PDIA as any effort to sell or push my approach: It is simply me offering  the best that I have at this time, which is what I think we all need  to do.

As usual, I have some questions for you to think about in relation to this blog, and then a motivational and informative video below featuring my wonderful colleague Dutch Leonard:

  1. Do you think that  your system (school, city govt, national govt, etc.) lacks the capability to confront  the crisis you are facing? Why?
  1. Do you agree  that  most (if not all) systems facing this crisis (especially when it is new) probably also lack the capability to confront the crisis?  Why?


  1. Do you agree that a key aspect of your leadership challenge in this crisis situation is to help your people build their capabilities, to ‘show and grow’ their capability to solve this new problem?


  1. Do you agree that system capability is more than ‘ability’ but also involves the structures and mechanisms that empower ability (affecting authorization, acceptance, and process mobilization)?


  1. Do you agree that you can  build capability by  working differently (changing how you authorize, motivate, and mobilize)?
    • Do you think you have  latent (unused) capability in your system? (especially creativity of people)
    • Do you think that a learning-by-doing  approach could foster more capability?
    • How could you authorize your people differently to release some of that latent capability and promote learning-by-doing?
    • How could you motivate your people differently to get them to accept (intrinsically) that they need to release their latent capability and try more learning-by-doing?
    • What mobilizing processes need to change to release your people’s latent capability and try more learning-by-doing?

Before signing off, I want to share a ten minute video from my colleague Dutch Leonard. He works on disaster and crisis management and leadership and is amazing. In this video he discusses working in disaster relief situations—full  of crisis—and stresses the importance of re-thinking how you work and lead. [the sound is not great to put up your volume].

Notice how Dutch emphasizes that these situations are chaotic and uncertain, and how often existing systems are in a state of collapse (especially the case after a disaster but also common when facing crises that are deeply systemic in nature, like COVID-19).

He notes that such crises can only be solved with a coordinated approach, but warns about the kinds of structures used to foster coordination. Centralizing too much  might seem appropriate but it seldom allows for the kind  of problem-solving creativity and energy  needed on the ground in response to crises. He says you need to focus on the problem, and create a ‘Decentralized Intelligent Adaptation’ structure to empower people in the context to build their know-how and find  their way to solution.

I like, particularly, a sentence he offers at about 8:10, which  I will paraphrase: “The challenge in the face of crisis is to find or build organizations  that have the capability to problem solve, build trust in these organizations, and give them the discretionary resources they  need to show and grow their capabilities and  solve  the problem you face.”

The Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in the face of a crisis (like the COVID-19 pandemic).

If you are interested in reading more, click here forpart 9 of this blog series. Also visit the landing page for this series on our website


  1. […] Every system has significant potential to build its capabilities, rapidly, in the face of crisis. Matt defines capability as ‘the empowered ability to get something done, to solve problems’. Your system’s capability is influenced by: i) The abilities it is endowed with, in other words the skills (knowledge formally or informally acquired) and resources; and the three mechanisms that empower these abilities: ii) the authority mechanisms, structures and relationships that empower use of skills and resources; iii) what people accept to do, their intrinsic motivation; and iv) the organizational mobilizing processes you have to connect the previous three dimensions. Matt argues the challenge of leadership is to build organizations with the capability required to solve problems, starting where you are, building trust in the organization and growing these capabilities as you move through this crisis. Results will give credit, legitimacy and credibility to the leader and the team. […]

  2. […] In my last post, I argued that you should prepare to work differently. In this blog  I will offer ideas on doing that. I am informed by my BSC team’s work with countries employing PDIA (problem driven iterative adaptation) in the face of problems (some crises) and the work of people like Dutch Leonard (whose video was included in the last post). […]

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