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Five ways you can waste a crisis

by Mark P. McDonald  |  March 27, 2020  |  Comments Off on Five ways you can waste a crisis

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”  The quote is most often attributed to Rahm Emanuel, former Congressman and Mayor of Chicago.

What do we mean by waste in the climate of the current health crisis?  The idea of exploiting this particular type of crisis is repugnant.  COVID-19 is not selective, the people who become infected are no different than others.  Anyone who assigns a moral aspect is despicable.  It touches everyone the good, the bad, the pretty … you get the point.  There is no winning in this situation.  Everyone will either directly or know of someone who has suffered a loss in this crisis.

But there ways that leaders can waste a crisis.  The waste in this sense that they add to the crisis, its related stress or uncertainty.  Here are five ways I am seeing people wasting the crisis and the opportunity to lead.

  • Doing Nothing – a crisis demands a response. It might not be the perfect or absolutely right one, but movement is progress forward.  It’s a little like being at the north pole, regardless of your next step you are always heading south.  In a crisis, regardless of your action you are making progress.    If it turns out to be the wrong move, then we can correct it.
  • Complexity – a crisis is complex, if it were not complex then we would have dealt with when the issues before they became a crisis. Leaders waste time, energy and engagement when they seek to meet complexity with complexity.  All that does is confuse people, tie up resources and make people less sure.  Simple actions taken for simple reasons is the antidote for this.
  • Fixing the Past – a crisis demands change. The easiest way to change is to fix something that we know is broken.  Before your break out the duct tape and super glue, ask yourself is our time better spent creating something new to replace what is broken?  Given the magnitude of the health crisis, it’s a valid question and often the best course of action.
  • Keeping Secrets – a crisis exists as long as uncertainty > knowledge. A crisis abates when the two level out and the focus turns to getting back to work.  Leaders too often keep secrets about business conditions and plans for to long.  Confidentiality is important, particularly when leaders debate different options and actions.  But once a decision is made it needs to be clearly and broadly communicated.  A secret in a crisis is a crisis in itself.
  • Politics – this is the context for Emanuel’s which was followed by the observation that its time to push through changes that would not normally be acceptable to the public. That type of politics aside, internal politics, personal payback, competing against peers wastes time, energy and organizational capital.  If a leader uses the crisis to take it out on someone, then the really are not a leader –seems more like a 4th grader.

Crisis are times of significant stress, disruption and change. Past practices, plans and ideas are no longer as effective or relevant as they were.    Leading in a time of crisis is just that leading and leaders have not time to waste themselves or their organizations in these ways.

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Category: leadership  management  personal-observation  

Mark McDonald
VP Analyst
12 years at Gartner
33 years IT Industry

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a Vice President and Fellow Emeritus in Gartner for General Managers Program. Read Full Bio




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