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).
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?”
Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 16: Empowering work and learning, even if things seem chaotic