When confronted with a crisis like the present pandemic, Dave Snowden says there are four things leaders need to do: assess, adapt, accept, and transcend.
Snowden is worth listening to. He is one of the world’s leading experts on complexity and the father of the Cynefin Framework – one of the best tools I know of for determining what sort of problem you are dealing with and how to solve it.
“The assessment stage is quite simply, is it really a crisis or not? Have you got a contingency plan? If you’ve got a contingency plan, you’ve already scenarioed this. Then it’s not a crisis; you can just implement the plan,” Snowden told me in a recent interview. “But assuming you haven’t got a plan and you didn’t expect it, then you’re into a different situation.”
In that case, leaders need to, well, lead. That means figuring out the immediate steps that need to be taken to respond to the crisis.
“The only time a leader makes a decision in a crisis is right up front. They make draconian, rapid decisions to create breathing space downstream. Thereafter, they distribute decision making and centralize coordination, which is actually what good leaders do anyway,” Snowden said. “Good leaders hardly ever make decisions. It’s a sign of failure if you’ve got to do that.”
When it comes to effectively responding to the COVID-19 outbreak, Snowden says the best example of this sort of leadership has been New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
“If you look at what (she) did, she actually broke the law. I mean, it was illegal for her to lockdown New Zealand, but she realized she had to – and she did it,” Snowden said, pointing to the country’s extremely low death rate as proof that she made the right choice early in the pandemic. “Compare that with the U.K. and U.S.”
Phase two is about adjusting to the new reality. Snowden’s Cynefin Framework can help here, because it helps leaders decide what sort of problem they are dealing with, and which tools are best suited to addressing it. Cynefin can also help identify the right sort of experts to bring in to help make the best decision, as well as how to employ them effectively.
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Phase three, acceptation, is about moving forward.
“After you’ve assessed it and adapted, you can now start to look towards the future,” Snowden explained. “Acceptation is a key concept in complexity science. It’s the radical repurposing of things you’re already good at to handle novelty because, in a crisis, you don’t have time to invent from scratch; you’ve got to repurpose fast.”
Which ideally leads to the final phase, transcendence.
“Transcend is all about: How do you learn? How do you actually create capability for the future?” he said, adding that this helps prepare you for the next crisis. “One of the things we’re trying to build here is a sort of process and capability by which organizations can create high levels of resilience going forward.”
And Snowden says the next crisis is coming.
“COVID is God’s gift to humanity, because it’s a wake-up call,” he cautioned. “It’s not the worst plague we’re going to see in my lifetime, and I’m 67 – which is quite scary when you think about that. And that’s before you get to things like global warming and political disturbance.”