Public Leadership Through Crisis 16: Empowering work and learning, even if things seem chaotic

written by Matt Andrews


The last few blog posts have offered various lessons from practice – in Liberia’s 2014 Ebola crisis and Bahrain’s current Covid-19 crisis. I offered these lessons at this point partly because they provide excellent applied narratives on the importance of adopting fast, flat and flexible organizing structures when faced with crises. Regular readers will know that I like the ‘snowflake version’ of such structures (where many satellite teams locate themselves organically around a central coordinating  nuclear  team). I  will offer more detail on various aspects of these in-practice structures in posts to come – including how political leadership relates to the snowflake, what ‘nuclear’ teams could look like, what information flow through structures might be useful, how satellite teams can be identified, how work could be organized, etc.

In this post and the one that follows, however, I want to share the broader idea on why fast, flat and flexible structures are vital in the face of crisis, and offer thoughts on how leaders (or authorized supervisors) might see their role in such a system, and how leaders might navigate the public value concerns organizations face in crisis situations. 

To  offer these thoughts, I’d like to introduce readers (and viewers) to Mark Moore, a Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School whose work on public management is legendary. His work on Public Value has had a significant impact on public policy education and thinking across the globe. He participated in a Zoom interview with me, and I am breaking it into two parts (one in this post and the other in the next post).

This part of the post reflects on Mark’s comments about the importance of leaders mobilizing work and learning through the crisis, even if it seems chaotic. Here is the video; my thoughts follow, with (as usual) a set of questions at the end for your reflection.

I began this discussion by asking Mark for thoughts on how to organize in chaos (often what crises pose for us), and particularly about the challenge of getting bureaucratic leaders to let go of controls and allow flexible coordination.  Mark responded by reflecting on the difficulties encountered during crisis: resources are overwhelmed and not in the right places, gaps persist, [my addition] people face a direct threat, and lack knowledge on exactly what to do.

Given this perspective, Mark notes, “the idea that we can manage our way out of crisis using plan and control is misplaced.” Existing organizing structures—and  the controls they provide—were not created for the crisis, are over-stressed by the  crisis, and do not allow the learning you need to deal with the crisis.

Mark opines, however, that you have an unusual asset in crises: “the urgency to do tasks”. He notes that, “During crises you can’t forget about the task [as organizations sometimes do]” … “The tasks are staring you in the face all the time.”

Mark suggests that the goal of leadership in times of crisis should be to leverage this urgency and promote learning through the creative action of ‘your people’. “Can  you depend on your people to just start acting, [and] report on what they do, so that information can be recorded and you as an organization can learn?

If one thinks like this, the job of organizational leadership (“at the top” or “in the center”) is not to control but to fill gaps as best as possible, identify resource misplacements, and make sure they do not get in the way of urgency-inspired people  doing things. As Mark says, “Don’t interrupt the work that people are doing.”

He recounts watching ants scurrying around crazily after his father knocked their ant hill down. “They could sure use some coordination,” he thought, only to find that a few minutes later the ants had settled into a new structure. The ants’ work seemed haphazard, but it was effective.

Watch what he is talking about in this video of ants scurrying around, seemingly haphazardly, to move debris. Amazing what one can achieve through urgent action at scale.

The lesson, Mark offers, is that sometimes—and often in the midst of the  uncertainty posed by crises—the apparent chaos of large scale, high urgency action is exactly what you need. “The decentralized mobilization of energy is something  that you don’t want to mess with when coordinating.” The key is for ‘supervisors’ or ‘leaders’ to encourage and allow action at scale and provide information flows between actors, not stopping action but coordinating  it and ensuring it is constantly being informed.

Beyond authorizing action and fostering information flows, Mark says supervisors and leaders need to monitor the ‘state of the problem’ to keep attention, maintain motivation, and hold the sense of urgency. So those ‘at the center’ should get the best information possible about the state of the problem (and be  communicating this) in the context of a general strategy…that allows people then to act creatively. In a sense, I suggest that this makes the ‘leader’ the servant to the rest of the system. Mark agrees: “They are not commanding the system, they are enabling it.”

Mark suggests further that we should allow messiness and even “banging together” when leading through crises. But focus on making progress in improving the ‘state of the problem’—by showing insiders (who need to work) where the work is, and showing outsiders that you are working more effectively, making progress, and getting towards results.

Think of examples in our prior blog posts:

  • Tolbert Nyenswah noted that his central Liberian team enabled a structure of many other teams, all working on thematic areas and all focused on addressing the problem – the Ebola outbreak.  Tolbert’s central team identified the broad strategy (including the thematic focal points), allocated initial tasks to the  teams, and kept everyone focused on data about ‘the state of the problem’. But Tolbert’s team delegated significant authority and space to the thematic teams to act on the regular interactions allowed information to flow, back and forth, from the thematic teams to Tolbert’s teams, and the tactics and actions emerged through  the work, not one big plan. This is an example of the decentralized mobilization of energy.
  • Or consider the Bahrain example, where a War Room was created to bring multiple actors together to respond to the Covid-19 crisis, in three streams of work. The many actors were chosen partly because they would work long hours and try things out in their teams. The central team allotted tasks daily using ‘live task sheets’. They report daily, sharing information to allow learning  at the organizational level, and then get new tasks to do. As Hamad Almalki says, “each person [at all levels] comes and shares with others and then goes away and does what they need to do.”

Given this line of thought, leaders or supervisors might find the following an apt expression of the way they should see their role leading their people in crisis [paraphrasing Mark]:

“This is not a time for me bossing you, this is a time for all of us together helping to solve the problem. So as an authority, I will take responsibility for saying ‘here’s what the problem is’ and getting a good measure of it, and making the argument for a general approach to do it. But that’s ten percent of the activity needed to produce the results. The rest comes from you. Go and do it.”

Mark finishes this part of the interview noting that people in organizations need to be emotionally connected to the goals they are working on. Much of their work will be small things, putting pieces in place that might (hopefully will) accumulate into bigger results. The leader must help her people make the connection between the large abstract goals they aspire to contribute to, and the many small actions that actually make up their day-to-day work.

He describes this as the ‘artistic use of authority’; to mobilize people rather than simply to direct and control them. Hopefully  you can see how this line of thinking relates to many of our blog posts, including the first post where Nancy Koehn shared her ‘best definition of leadership’ (by David Foster Wallace): “Real leaders are people who help us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own.”

Now, it is  your turn to reflect:

  1. Do you agree with Mark that crises create a sense of urgency that actually  helps us mobilize people to work more than they have before (“help[ing] us overcome the limitations of our own individual laziness and selfishness and weakness and fear and get[ting] us to do better, harder things than we can get ourselves to do on our own”)?
    • Do you have any examples of urgency displayed in your context during this crisis?
    • How do you see leaders leveraging this sense of urgency?
  1. Mark argues that we need to move beyond command and control mechanisms to leverage the sense of urgency and create decentralized work at scale, by  many people, all trying things out, learning, sharing, and helping to  push the system
    • What do you think of this idea, of ‘mobilizing decentralized work at scale’? (what do you see as the benefits and risks of such work?)
  1. Do you believe that the structures in place in your context accommodate this kind of mobilization of work at  scale? Why or why  not?
  2. What do you think could be done to mobilize such  work? (think of hiring people into a process, identifying a notional goal, organizing  teams, structuring  tasks, creating rapid reporting  structures, etc.).

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).


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