Public Leadership Through Crisis 13: Tolbert Nyenswah on leading through Liberia’s Ebola epidemic

written by Matt Andrews

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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Tolbert Nyenswah is a Senior Research Associate at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In 2014 he was the head of the Liberian Incident  Management  System (IMS), leading the operational aspects of the government’s response to the Ebola epidemic. Following this, he led the establishment of Liberia’s First National Public Health Institute and became its First Director General and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) 2017-2019.

This is a podcast of a conversation with Tolbert on his experience (interviewed by Peter Harrington and Matt Andrews). Brief summary thoughts follow, with questions for leaders facing crises today.

1.  This can be terrifying

Tolbert relates to the Covid-19 challenge facing many leaders, noting that he was asked to create the Incident Management System when the crisis had already begun  (not in preparation for it): “When you’re in a dire situation where people are in the streets, [you have] no best practice testing capacity … and you are setting up an incident management system at the same time … Before you really understand what the process is about, especially when information is weak …”

I  am sure may leaders feel like this in the face of crisis: unprepared and with much to do. In addition, Tolbert  notes, the country was in a politically fraught position: “The president was in a very, very uncomfortable position as a leader .. in fact political leadership were calling for the president’s resignation [arguing that] the government should step down.”

At 6:38 into the interview, Tolbert simply says, “It was terrifying.” If  you feel you are in the same boat … read on – terrifying things can be dealt with. Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 13: Tolbert Nyenswah on leading through Liberia’s Ebola epidemic

Public Leadership Through Crisis 12: Course correct; it’s hard, but you must—and can—do it

written by Matt Andrews

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).

My last blog post recounted, briefly, how Liberia changed the organizational structures it used to respond to the 2014 Ebola crisis, mid-stream through the crisis.  I wanted to tell the story primarily to demonstrate how the country ultimately adopted a flat, fast, and  flexible ‘snowflake’ like structure  (in the Incident  Management  System). Studies show that other countries and organizations adopt similar structures when facing crisis, including Korea during the MERS crisis and private corporations. In upcoming blog posts I will discuss how you might think of adopting a similar structure—especially establishing your core team, thematic focal points, and thematic teams. Even as I share these ideas, please remember that there is no one-size-fits-all crisis response organizational structure; the experience suggests that you do need to adapt your organization to the realities of your crisis  situation, but the structure that works for you will be heavily contingent on your situation.

In this post, however, I want to pause and reflect on an implicit challenge embedded in the Liberian story: how do you, as a leader, course correct when you realize you’ve made mistakes in responding to the crisis? The shift in Liberia was in ‘how’ the government was working, but you could also have shifts in ‘what’ your response looks like, ‘who’ is involved, and more. How do you, as a leader, make these changes and still maintain support and confidence of your followers?

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This is a tough topic for any public leader. But it is really important. As discussed in earlier blog posts, you will make mistakes and/or realize there are things you did not know and have to adapt around. It is impossible not to make mistakes when you face the uncertainty associated with crisis, and the many questions posed by such uncertainty—What should we do? How should we do it? When? Where? With whom? For whom? For how long?  At what cost? Your mistakes will arise because decisions are based on biased and half-informed assumptions and ways of thinking common when dealing with what Michael Osterholm calls the “fog of war” (in  relating to influenza pandemics):

“The “fog of war” describes the level of ambiguity in situational awareness experienced by participants in military operations. The term captures the uncertainty regarding one’s own capability and the capability and intent of the adversary during battle. The conceptual similarities between the fog of war and the fog of pandemic preparedness are unmistakable:

  • We really don’t understand our capability … to respond.
  • We have only a very general sense of what the pandemic influenza virus is capable of doing in terms of human illness or the social, political, and economic collateral damage.
  • We can’t predict with any certainty how the next pandemic virus will behave …”

Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 12: Course correct; it’s hard, but you must—and can—do it

Listen to our second virtual discussion on Leadership Through Crisis

Thank you to all those who attended our second session last week and for engaging with us. If you missed the session, you can listen to it here.

Governments are most important in times of public crisis, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Individuals—no matter how talented or self-reliant—look to their governments for help, to empower or deploy the powers and potentialities of the collective. But many people tasked with leading public organizations in times of crises struggle to know if and how to rise to the occasion. This is a particular challenge in governments that have low capability or are trying to build capability: leaders in such situations can easily feel like captains on small boats facing high winds and big waves.

BSC’s new Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series offers ideas for leaders questioning how they can help and what kind of leadership is required in crises. Each blog offers a few ideas as well as questions for reflection, thus creating a space for learning and contextual reflection.

 

 

Public Leadership Through Crisis 11: Reorganizing to address the crisis

written by Matt Andrews

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).

I was on a call two days ago with a former student who is now deeply involved in his country’s Covid-19 crisis response. He said something like the following: “Our  government  is not set up to respond to this; there are multiple challenges coming at us all at once, requiring multiple new ideas from multiple places, fast. We just can’t mobilize people properly.”

This is a comment I am sure many leaders would echo right now. You look at your bureaucracy and wonder if and how it will be able to handle this crisis. It’s a little like reflecting on whether a ship built for good weather can really manage a storm.

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The truth is that it probably won’t.

Typical hierarchical control mechanisms seem like they give you the coordination you need in crisis (given that we often look to centralize control during such times) but we can’t control every part of the crisis through singular hierarchies, especially when crises require engagement beyond a single organization or geographic area. Also, no new crisis conforms to the pre-arranged organizational structures we have in our organizations. These structures are typically set up to deal with specific and discrete challenges—not compound problems like we face with threats like COVID-19 (where the initial threat of virus is extremely complex and has multiple knock-on effects).

This is precisely why those who have worked in crisis and disaster management suggest using new structural mechanisms to organize their response. Decentralized decision-making and coordination mechanisms are particularly advocated for use in this kind of situation (see Dutch Leonard’s video in blog post 8, the discussion of such structures in blog post 9, and the ‘part 4’ reference to such in the interview with Shruti Mehrotra in blog post 10).

What matters is that these mechanisms allow you as the leader to identify where decisions need to be made, access information (as best as possible) and ideas to make those decisions, mobilize agents to act on and implement those decisions, and constantly monitor those actions to adapt the decisions as necessary.

In blog post 9 I emphasized that there are different kinds of such mechanisms. My  work on problem driven iterative adaptation (PDIA) has found Marshall Ganz’s snowflake structure as an accessible, organic mechanism to help countries think about organizing themselves to address major problems (often related to crises).

In this blog I want to reflect—very briefly, but with references for your additional reflection—on how Liberia adopted a new organizational mechanism that has elements of the snowflake (being relatively flat, fast, and flexible) to coordinate and empower decisions in response to the 2014 Ebola epidemic. I summarize the  story from Liberia as well as I can in this short blog, drawing particularly on two key  articles, from Princeton  University’s amazing Innovations for Successful Societies case series by Leon Schreiber and Jennifer Widner (or SW), and the Journal Health Systems Reform by  Tolbert Nyenswah, Cyrus Engineer and David Peters (or NEP). I  am not sharing this to suggest that the Liberian Incident Management System (IMS) is the best practice for you to copy or mimic. Rather, the story shows that, Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 11: Reorganizing to address the crisis

Listen to our first virtual discussion on Public Leadership Through Crisis

On March 27th, 2020, we hosted a virtual discussion with Matt Andrews, who answered audience questions on his new Public Leadership Through Crisis blog series.

Here are some of the questions he answered:

  • What, in your opinion, are the capabilities required for public leadership through crisis, and what are the biggest challenges to building these capabilities?
  • In a time of crisis like this, no matter the amount of resources a government has, it will never be enough. How does a government gain public trust and be able to mobilize all the community resources have?
  • How do we influence people to change norms?
  • How do public leaders build multi agent teams during a crisis, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic?

We converted the Zoom session into a podcast for those who missed this session. Stay tuned for more virtual discussions!

 

 

 

Public Leadership Through Crisis 10: Lessons from experience

written by Matt Andrews

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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As we ponder how you as a leader should consider organizing your organization(s) to respond to the crisis, let’s listen to some advice from someone who has led through various crises. Below is a podcast interview with Shruti Mehrotra, who  has advised various Heads of State on effective government and statebuilding and currently helps oversee George Soros’ Economic Development Fund and Economic Advancement Program. She has worked in a variety of leadership roles on crises in contexts like Sudan and Liberia and beyond.

Here are some points from the  interview that relate to organizing yourself and your organization/team to lead through crisis.

1. Three lessons for leaders

Shruti notes that leading in these situations requires that you:

  • recognize there are no obvious, clear or easy decisions (or perfect decisions); what you need to do is get the best information you can to make  decisions (even though you know the information is imperfect),
  • need to have a process in place to discipline how you engage the information (access it, interpret it, debate it, etc.) and monitor the process (ideally from some kind of situation room), and
  • need trusted people (advisors) around you—including people with expertise in the subject matter (the technical dimensions)—to help make the decisions.

As she says: “there will  be debate, [but] as a decision maker and a decision making team, one has to go through that debate process and come up with a conclusion that is trusted and can be communicated to foster trust with the population about choices that were taken.”

An emergent idea, then: It is important to think about the information sources you  have, the process  you have for interrogating information, and the team you have doing this  work (“your trusted people” and the “technical experts”).

Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 10: Lessons from experience

Leading Remote Teams during Covid-19

Guest blog written by Lindsey Marchessault

In the last few weeks, many organizations around the world have had to pivot sharply to remote work due to the Covid-19 pandemic. This shift can be a daunting transition. However, there are many strategies and tactics that can help teams to maintain effectiveness, productivity, and a sense of normalcy during this challenging time.

At the Open Contracting Partnership, I’ve managed a global remote team since 2015 and I’ve worked from home since 2017. We have staff in Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Germany, Nigeria, Ukraine, the UK, and the US. In addition, our wider Helpdesk team (composed of staff and contractors) sits in New Zealand, Paraguay, and the UK.

My organization supports governments, civil society and business to improve public contracting outcomes around the world. This work involves advocacy, technical assistance, and learning activities. Ultimately, our goal is to empower our partners to implement transformational reforms.

Traditionally, our activities have involved a combination of remote and in-person support. For example, in 2019, we remotely supported 112 partners from 44 countries. We also undertook 46 ‘high-intensity’ engagements (involving significant staff time and/or resources) involving both remote and in-person support. Finally, we delivered 34 training events in 29 countries, most of which were in-person. In 2020, due to the Covid-19 outbreak, we envision conducting most (if not all) of our support and training activities remotely.

So, how do we as an organization manage all of this remote work effectively?

Clear Strategic Targets

The most critical element is to have a clear organizational strategy. This strategy should be codified in clear organizational targets with regular reporting and reflection calls on progress towards the targets. We do this reporting and reflection quarterly. Organizational targets, however, are not enough. We found that clearly defined individual work plans and targets are required to help each team member prioritize their tasks and take responsibility for their own workloads.

Efficient Meetings

When you manage a remote team, it’s important to maintain the types of interactions you would have in a typical office setting. That’s why every Monday morning we have a virtual team meeting that is accompanied by a shared google document. In advance of the meeting, each team member documents the tasks they completed in the previous week and lists their tasks for the week ahead. During the meeting, the management team will also share important updates that are relevant for the whole team. Furthermore, each team member has the opportunity to ask questions to management or other team members, make requests for other team members, and to offer assistance for tasks outside their domain of responsibility.

In addition to these full team meetings, smaller teams within the organization will meet on a regular schedule to cowork and coordinate on tasks. The senior management team meets virtually every Wednesday to make important decisions, share key updates, and reflect on our organization’s progress and performance. Each manager also holds individual biweekly virtual meetings with each of our direct reports. These check-ins are opportunities to discuss work-life balance, assess progress on specific tasks, and strategize to overcome challenges.

Knowledge Management

In an ever-evolving global field that cuts across public financial management, tech, and advocacy, knowledge management is vital to keep us on track and to help us capture lessons learned from our engagements. We use a customer relationship management system (CRM) to manage the support requests from our 100+ partners from different jurisdictions around the world. With the CRM, we can assign issues to each other and add team members as ‘watchers’ so that they receive updates about the issue even if they are not responsible. We also use Google Drive to file our key shared documents, such as our organizational policies, the process documentation for our regular tasks, and detailed descriptions for each engagement, training, research project that we undertake.

Finally, for our technical work on the Open Contracting Data Standard and related software, we use Github (a platform for open source development) to document and work collaboratively on tasks and issues.

Decision Making

When you work as a remote team, it’s important to establish clear lines of decision-making and identify mechanisms for relevant staff to be informed of key decisions, especially relating to budgeting, expenditures, travel, and communication. Over the years, we found that it is extremely beneficial to have a shared document available to all team members that documents explicitly who is authorized to make types of decisions under different scenarios, and who needs to be informed. This approach mitigates uncertainties or blurred lines that can cause stress or affect our work.

To ensure that decision-making is prioritized, we also encourage staff to write concise emails inspired by the advice from this Harvard Business Review article. This way colleagues and managers understand when they are being asked for a decision, for input, or are simply being informed of an important decision.

When issues are too complex to solve through emails, decision calls are scheduled with the relevant team members.

Collaboration and Team Bonding

One thing I miss is being able to go for coffee with colleagues. Coffee breaks are nice for unstructured conversation about our work. To make up for these coffee runs, I sometimes schedule ‘virtual coffees’ or short Google Hangout chats with colleagues when time and workload allows. And to keep as much personal connection as possible, we use a Whatsapp group to share photos and other more ‘fun’ content.

Our organization does meet in person at least once a year for a team retreat. This in-person meeting provides an opportunity to reflect on the implementation of our strategy, agree priorities for the year ahead, and bond as a team. Our team retreat this year was supposed to be in New Orleans this last past week. However, we canceled it in response to the emerging Covid-19 guidance.

Instead, we held a virtual team retreat (using Google Meet and Google Documents). While it was not quite the same as an in person retreat, we managed well since we are accustomed to virtual interaction. Due to time differences, we scheduled only 1.5 to 3 hours per day for the retreat and managed to get through most of the objectives. Our team building exercises also had to adapt. For example, instead of using sticky notes to document progress and priorities on a world map, we used the Conceptboard tool to replicate this task virtually. We are still discovering the many great virtual tools available to enhance our remote work and engagement.

Balancing Work & Childcare

Most schools and daycares have closed due to Covid-19. Having young children at home and working from home presents an additional challenge. During these times, it’s important to work with staff to identify how they will adjust working hours and manage their work and home responsibilities. Ultimately, it comes down to having a bit more patience and flexibility.

The Road Ahead

The breadth and pace of Covid-19 is unprecedented. In this time of social distancing, working remotely is necessary to halt the spread of this outbreak. But it doesn’t mean that you can’t be productive. With the right targets, approach, and adaptability (including toddlers on laps during video calls), your organization can stay on track and keep performing to the best of its abilities.