2. During a Crisis or Major Organizational Change
2. a. Problem Assessment and Information Gathering
It is important for leaders to first gather some critical information and fully assess the problem when faced with a crisis, before giving into the temptation to lunge forward and act upon the multiple tasks at hand. Be sure you thoroughly understand the problem and the full range of challenges your organization is facing before you dive into problem-solving. Here, the advice often incorrectly attributed to Albert Einstein can serve as a good guide: “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”
Leaders should ask some simple, but revealing, questions to better understand the problem, its scope, and its consequences. Simultaneously, they should tap subject matter experts to provide data-driven, fact-based information and guidance. Quickly read the latest research, review guidelines from local, state and federal agencies, consult with experts, and utilize whatever internal and external resources you have at your disposal. Many times, this will enable an organization to follow best practices (and avoid reinventing the wheel), while ensuring that legal and government mandates and regulations are followed and incorporated into planning.
During the COVID-19 crisis, many large organizations (such as local governments, universities, and large corporations) performed benchmarking and literature reviews, and conducted
focus groups, surveys, and town halls at the onset of their planning, given the uncertainty and seemingly ever-changing data and guidelines surrounding the pandemic. Some also established teams of epidemiologists and health experts to ensure that all operational decisions were guided by evidence and science, in order to keep their large populations safe and healthy.
This is a critical initial step before progressing to the next: establishing a plan of action.
2. b. Establish a Project Plan
Remember earlier when we discussed that times of crisis often also bring change management and project management too? After ensuring that the organization has role clarity, emergency procedures, crisis communications plans, gathered critical information and fully assessed the problem, it is time to break down the crisis into manageable pieces for task execution.
Next, establish a project plan and ensure everyone in the organization knows and understands the plan. It may be tempting to dive into the crisis and begin trouble-shooting and executing tasks before a plan is in place, and in a crisis such as COVID19, it may feel a bit like trying to fly the plane while building it. It is also important to ground the plan in a shared vision and a common sense of purpose. A shared vision ensures that the organization has critical buy-in from key stakeholders, who may be essential to executing the plan.
While creating the plan, it is important to establish clear goals, deliverables and timelines for project execution. Depending on the size and scope of the crisis and projects to be completed, include applicable key elements in the plan such as:
- Gantt chart (a type of bar chart that illustrates a project schedule): detailing major project milestones and deliverables.
- Scenario planning and stress testing: before instituting a transformative change, stress test it with actors. For example, walk through the first day back to school from a student’s perspective, trace the steps and customer journey for consumers who may use your products or services, and so on.
- New or revised policies, procedures, and protocols.
- Operational changes: for example a new service delivery model, business model, or training employees on new procedures .
- Major purchases and investments to be made and items to be secured.
- Communications and stakeholder engagement.
While building out the project plan, leaders would be wise to check in with “boots on the ground” employees and teams, to ensure that the plan is feasible and will work in real time. Often these team members have critical information and can raise important considerations that may impact project execution, which are essential to incorporate in the initial planning stages. Leaders who skip this critical step do so at their own peril, as crises rarely allow time to readjust plans that may have missed essential elements or ignored important considerations that may keep the project on-time, on-budget and successful.
In addition, it is important for leaders to incorporate allowances to preserve the organization’s unique qualities, traditions and strengths. Does your organization have certain rituals or assets that make it unique and appealing to stakeholders? Do you have a strong and tight-knit workplace culture? It is advisable to review and incorporate these considerations into the plan so your organization’s unique assets, traditions, and culture can be preserved despite any operational or policy changes that may be implemented.
2. c. Communicate the Plan
Next, communicate the plan to key stakeholders and the community. Ensure communication happens frequently and throughout all levels of the organization, utilizing in-person communication such as town halls, and written communication such as emails, websites and FAQs. Inform key stakeholders of the plan throughout each phase of the project and pay close attention to the various communication channels that will be most effective. Where and how does your team and stakeholders typically receive important information: via a website, an internal portal, through emails from leadership, or by other means? In addition, large-scale or long-term projects may require the creation of a new webpage, guidebook or portal to keep stakeholders apprised. Be sure to align expectation with the appropriate communication platforms and establish communication channels where your stakeholders know they can always go to receive the most up-to-date information. It is important to refresh the information frequently to keep the content current.
In many crisis situations, and when executing large-scale projects, it is often helpful to create feedback loops to keep gathering critical information. Focus groups, town halls and surveys, for example, will allow the organization to: determine what is working (and what is not); monitor progress; test assumptions; and establish ongoing, two-way communication between leadership and key stakeholders. Feedback loops are also helpful in building trust, which is essential in effectively handling crises, managing uncertainty, and implementing large-scale organizational change. Even the best-laid plans will falter if leaders have failed to build trust and buy-in among the organization’s key stakeholders.
2. d. Execute the Plan
Finally, execute the project plan, ensuring adherence to budgets and project timelines. During project plan execution, it is important for busy Chiefs of Staff and executive leaders to designate project managers, who can handle the day-to-day elements of the plan and keep their leaders apprised. Harvard University’s National Preparedness Leadership Initiative experts Eric J. McNulty and Leonard Marcus note the difference between leading through a crisis and managing through it, arguing that “The most effective leaders in crises ensure that someone else is managing the present well while focusing their attention on leading beyond the crisis toward a more promising future.”6
While keeping an eye on budgets, timelines and other critical aspects of the project plan, effective leaders prioritize the human side of the crisis and the toll it might be taking on their team, customers and other stakeholders. One of the silver linings of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it brought front and center something that can often get lost in organizational settings: that organizations are comprised of human beings, and human beings need to be cared for. The human suffering, mental health challenges, and physical toll that the pandemic laid bare helped many organizational leaders to recognize and reaffirm their commitment to tend to the people under their care. According to University of Virginia Darden School of Business Professor Toni Irving, “You have to be kind to everyone. You have to pay attention to everyone. You have to humanize everyone. You have to listen to everyone.”7
Amidst the complex matrix of project expenses, deadlines, deliverables and the 24/7 news cycle, it can be all-too-easy to forget that human beings will be impacted by nearly every decision the organization makes during a crisis; so human beings should be at the center of each decision and action. This humanizing concept was illustrated by James “Jimmy” Dunne, managing partner of the investment bank Piper Sandler, which lost 40% of its personnel in the World Trade Center during the 9/11 terrorist attack. Dunne claimed that “the more he led on the people issues — personally attending funerals, continuing salaries and benefits, and other efforts — the more the business issues seemed to take care of themselves.”8
3. After a Crisis or Major Organizational Change
3. a. Solicit Feedback
After resolving the crisis, completing the project, or instituting major organizational change, solicit feedback from key stakeholders. Seek out constructive criticism to evaluate what worked well, and where there may be opportunities for improvement. Conduct surveys, hold focus groups and town halls, or create an anonymous suggestion box to facilitate honest feedback.
As with any major undertaking, it is crucial to conduct a post-mortem and a review process to evaluate your efficacy, and use this feedback to incorporate key learnings into operations, policies and procedures moving forward.
3. b. Review and Adjust the Plan
Even the most effective and successful plans will have room for improvement. Review and adjust the plan as necessary. It is advisable to view the plan as an iterative process, as opposed to a “one-and-done” document that sits on a shelf. Since future crises undoubtedly await, successful organizations continue to tweak their planning documents as feedback and new and more complete information become available.
3. c. Learn From Your Mistakes
Learn from your mistakes and use those lessons to incorporate long-term, transformative change. Take time to reflect on your process and consider what you were unprepared for and incorporate these elements into each plan going forward. What wasn’t a part of your emergency plan, crisis communications plan or project plan (that should have been)? Leaders should ask themselves and their stakeholders what worked well, what didn’t, whether there were any communication gaps or holes in the organizational structure, where there may have been delays in decision-making and project execution, and so on. Since it is unlikely that this will be the last crisis the organization will face, it helps to review these lessons while they are still fresh in stakeholders’ minds, so the organization can be even stronger and more adept at resolving future crises. As former White House Chief of Staff, Congressman and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel once advised, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
With the current pace of change and disruption, and the ever-present possibility of impending crises such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic, organizations need to be prepared to address crises and position themselves to effectively implement the inevitable organizational changes that ensue. Thriving, and not just surviving, these challenges means taking appropriate steps before a crisis, throughout the crisis, and post-crisis.
Although in the moment a crisis can feel much like a sprint race, it is more akin to a marathon. It requires careful preparation before, during and post-event, as well as a long-term perspective that sees the organization successfully beyond the crisis and into the future. As Hootsuite founder and CEO Ryan Holmes once said, “You can run a sprint, or you can run a marathon, but you can’t sprint a marathon.”9 Sidestepping critical steps in preparing and responding to a crisis will undoubtedly lead to negative (and sometimes catastrophic) results. The organization that prepares well, and for the long haul, wins the race.
1. Jonathan Bundy, Michael D Pfarrer, Cole E. Short, W. Timothy Coombs, “Crises and Crisis Management: Integration, Interpretation, and Research Development,” Journal of Management 43 (6): 1661–1692 (2017): doi:10.1177/0149206316680030. S2CID 152223772
2. “Managing Organizational Change,” SHRM, accessed April 5, 2021,
3. PMP Project Management Professional Study Guide. (McGraw-Hill Professional, 2003), p.354, ISBN 0-07- 223062-2 .
4. “What is Continuity of Operations?”, FEMA, Accessed April l7, 2021,
5. June West, Steve Soltis and Gosia Glinska, “Communications in the Time of the Coronavirus: Lessons for Leaders,” UVA Darden Ideas to Action, April 14, 2020, https://ideas.darden.virginia.edu/communications-in-the-time-of-the-coronavirus-lessons-for-leaders
6. Eric J. McNulty and Leonard Marcus, “Are You Leading Through the Crisis…or Managing the Response?” Harvard Business Review, March 25, 2020, https://hbr.org/2020/03/are-you-leading-through-the-crisis-or-managing-the-response
7. Mary Margaret Frank, Morela Hernandez, Toni Irving, Lili Powell, Laura Morgan Roberts and Catherine Burton, “Wisdom from Female Experts at Darden,” UVA Darden Ideas to Action, March 30, 2021
8. Eric J. McNulty and Leonard Marcus, “Are You Leading Through the Crisis…or Managing the Response?” Harvard Business Review, March 25, 2020, https://hbr.org/2020/03/are-you-leading-through-the-crisis-or-managing-the-response
9. Drake Baer, ‘How HootSuite CEO Ryan Holmes Is Building A Yoga-Loving Maple-Syrup Mafia’,
Fast Company (2013)
Link: https://www.fastcompany.com/3019055/how-hootsuite-ceo-ryan-holmes-is-building-a-yoga-loving- maple-syrup-mafia