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).
Peter Harrington is an alumni of the Harvard Kennedy School, and a former fellow with the Building State Capability program (BSC). In 2014, Peter worked with the Africa Governance Initiative helping Liberia’s government deal with its Ebola epidemic. He assisted in an area called ‘Social Mobilization’; an area of the organizational response focused on engaging citizens—and fostering behavioral change in the citizenry—through communication.
In this podcast interview, Peter describes his experience and I summarize his thoughts therafter.
Here are some key takeaways from the interview.
1. Liberia’s organizational structure made a huge difference
You will hear Peter speak about the Incident Management System (the IMS) at the beginning of the podcast. This was the organization created to respond to the crisis. Peter notes that it was ‘hierarchical but also remarkably flat’ like the snowflake mechanism discussed in a prior blog post.
Peter describes the IMS as being composed of many ‘teams’. Some teams focused more on ‘hard’ aspects of the crisis response (like logistics) while others focused on ‘softer’ aspects of the response (like communications, psychosocial concerns, and others). Remember prior blog posts where we discussed the importance of having clear roles and keeping in your lane — these teams were a way of ensuring both things happened at the same time (people knew what they were doing and did not interfere with what others did).
Peter notes that this structure was both flat and hierarchical. Each team had a leader and all the team leaders reported daily to Tolbert Nyenswah who was the ‘Tzar’ of the IMS. Member of the international community slotted into teams (so they too played specific roles). Each and every team was led by a Liberian. Peter notes that Tolbert Nyenswah and his close team at the center of the ‘snowflake’ was like a ‘server’ – the connection hub where all parts of the response came together. Other teams analyzed the problems, came up with ideas, implemented, monitored, produced data, etc. The central team processed the knowledge, ensured it was shared, made decisions, followed up with decisions, and orchestrated the overall coordination. Read more about this kind of structure in blog post 11. Continue reading Public Leadership Through Crisis 14: Lessons on Crisis Communication from Liberia’s Ebola epidemic