Covid 19- Confronting our fallibility is as crucial as it is hard

Confronting our fallibility for the good

Covid 19 – confronting our fallibility is as crucial as it is hard

These thoughts are my musings about our fallibility, brought on by time on my hands.

We are all deeply affected by the Covid 19 pandemic. New orthodoxies of behaviour and belief inform our daily lives as policies are rolled out. We know that the policy decisions are made with limited data, understanding of the disease and poor global coordination.  It seems certain that as our understanding improves and the financial and social costs soar we will confront hard questions about whether this is the right way to respond. While acknowledging and confronting fallibility is great in theory, in practice it is hard. As the stakes pile up it gets harder.

We are afraid and we have all made sacrifices to get on board the lock-down instructions. We follow behavioural guidance to avoid infection. As we do the challenge is to remain  open-minded to the real possibility that experts we have listened to and agreed with are fallible and have been wrong or muddled in their thinking.  

Confronting our fallibility is crucial. In science, it informs new questions and makes us look for new answers. In politics it enables the weighing up of the relative merits of courses of action against ideologies. Normally these take place at slow pace with more time to assess and reflect. Now we are moving at high speed meaning the margin of error is far greater.

There are two layers of risk to consider. The first is the risk that the experts refused to reconsider, review discuss and adjust deepening our losses further. The second is that fear of a loss of face and backlash against the experts and decision-makers acts as a barrier to full review and reconsideration. 

Too much information?

Every day there are new graphs and information showing the scale, spread and death rate, but I cannot honestly say I am informed. The information  creates fear but not judgement. For instance, I have no idea how the reported deaths compare with others that effect excess deaths. I know there are 100,000 deaths each year from strokes and  23,200 excess deaths were recorded in UK 2018/19. The age range spread looks very similar to those were seeing from Covid 19.  I suspect others are the same as hits on Google for Corona Virus are over 9.5billion while for excess deaths its around 81million.

Obviously, public health messaging needs to be clear, easy-to-follow and un-nuanced for compliance, there can be no rooms for the ifs and buts. So we follow the rules to stay home and save lives. Are there alternatives we should consider? Even posing this question right now seems heretical.

A tale of two responses

Two key policy debates are playing out in response to Covid -19. One is a public health response, the other I call a social health response.

If I have understood it properly, the public health response says because people’s lives are at risk, we must do as much as is possible to curtail movement and interaction to prevent contagion. Our health services will thus be better able to cope and more lives will be saved. Containment reduces infection and keeps the flow of patients at a manageable flow. The value driving this is the value of life itself. 

The social health response argues for the need to enable a return to economic and social movement as soon as possible, even if there are still health risks.  It argues that the damage to our – already unequal and shaky – economic systems, to our culture and creativity and community support mechanisms, may suffer irreparable damage during a prolonged period of lock-down. This, in turn, may outweigh the benefits of  saving lives through containment as poverty, social distress and other untreated problems occur. Notwithstanding what we may feel about the politicians espousing the social health response – more on that below – the value that drives this can also be said to be the value of life itself.

I will eat my hat if I am wrong

Presently our knowledge of the virus, how it spreads and who is most at risk is unfolding. It has been widely reported that the data needed to make decisions from testing before and after is limited. It seems clear that such huge disruption and risk to life, health and well being of populations must rest on excellent knowledge of factors beyond only disease control. Graphs depicting the spread of the disease to inform the management of the response have been widely shared. There is no similarly coherent data or modelling regarding the the impact of widespread disruption and social/physical isolation, beyond analysis of the macro economy

Meanwhile, politicians and scientists are staking their futures and their reputations on making cases for one or other of the policy positions. At present the Public Health response is winning, supported by some excellent modelling by Imperial College. As it gains traction new social and political taboos are developing backed with legal enforcement mechanisms.  It’s hardly surprising that questioning the response meets with hostility and fear.  But this is risky.

Dr John Ioannidis of Stanford University in a recent interview argues strongly against blame and the need to win arguments. He points out excellent science is both excellent and flawed.  Opening up to peer review and ongoing challenge is central to scientific progress and quality.  Scientific models are just that: models. 

More than one hat?

The public health risk response of the current magnitude also affects social systems beyond health. A wider range of scientific studies is needed to make judgements so that our current thinking can be supported with studies modelling the varied impact of whole community shut-down on other health and well being, education and skills and  productivity for the future, through and beyond Covid -19.  Data of these other considerations need to be seen alongside the health models.  They could perhaps support better decisions making.

China is presumably well placed to provide the kind of reflective, post infection data evaluating and learning from their response. Several people have pointed to the environmental benefits of the lock downs on air quality.  But will a globally depressed economy really be better for tackling environmental sustainability, arguably a threat far greater than Covid -19?  

Herd mentality or herd immunity? Keeping an open mind

The paradox for science, in our present scenario, is we depend on it to guide our thinking even as it is bound to be wrong to some degree. For our democratically elected politicians it is worse. Not only are they fallible and frightened individuals like us, the system that elects them is deeply intolerant of prevarication.  

It is possible that in coming months we will find that mortality rates are lower than at first thought, or that social isolation is more damaging and even kills more – albeit for different reasons- than continued unfettered movement. We may learn that a disappointed and angry population is less willing to respond to pressing and more deadly issues in future. 

Matthew Syed in “Black Box Thinking” demonstrates both how important and how hard it is for powerful figures to admit they have been mistaken.  With this global disruption feeding global depression and widespread misery, the stakes have never been higher. The challenge of the coming months, even as we mourn the dead and struggle to remain as productive as possible, is to remain open to the possibility that we are fallible and may have got it wrong. Imagining it is the first step.

Corona: disaster or business opportunity?

Is your business plan ready and possibilities being tested? 

For most businesses “global pandemic”  is not a listed concern on the business risk register. Unless your business makes products with an obvious market at these times you mostly hope it never makes the list.  Corona has changed that.  Is it a disaster or a opportunity for your business? 

In spite of some attempts to consign it to the realms of a “foreign” threat, this contagious virus shows total disregard for the usual boundaries of borders, political allegiance, language, or class.  Older people are more at risk, but others are not safe.  As is normal, the poor and already unwell are especially vulnerable. The disease threatens health systems which in turn creates new vulnerabilities of other users. This pandemic touches everyone. And yet, CIPD, UK’s main HR hub noted tis week that only two out of every five businesses have any business continuity plan in place for these highly uncertain times.

Corona means change 

Responding to a crisis, many organisations have Business Continuity Plans. In my experience, these  tend to focus on the protection of data, and the reputation of the business as you attempt to keep things going and return to normal.  These are all a useful basis from which to begin your current thinking. However, they generally ignore the fact that after major events that affect a business and the people in it, nothing is the same.  Shifts take place in internal and external business dynamics and customer attitudes that will force us to change. The disruption of Corona virus presents a potential cause of disaster for your business but what opportunities for change and advantage does it hold?

With Corona, as we all work to reduce the spread and respond to those who fall sick, we can expect months of profound disruption. This will affect the personal and business lives of everyone involved with our businesses. The prolonged nature of the problem will drive many into poverty, including some on our teams. Our values will be challenged and our responses scrutinised. At the same time, it will force changes in the way you work and the inter-relationships you have within and outside the business.

The longer term impact is as yet unclear but within this uncertainty lie possibilities. The story goes that without the 17th century plague, we would not have the concept of gravity.  Isaac Newton discovered it when he was sent down from Cambridge to avoid illness following the closure the university.

From a risk category perspective, disruption from Corona is now a high likelihood/high impact scenario. As we have already seen in Asia and much of Europe, the spread and management of the impact of Corona will test our personal and professional resilience.  

Don’t Panic! 

Business planing in a crisis does not mean that we plan for the worst outcome. Rather we recognise that how we respond could lead to better or worse outcomes. We are at a fork in the road. And there may be more forks further ahead. Even as we may worry and face loss, we have strengths and opportunities as well as assets on which we can and must draw. 

As levels of distress and panic rise in communities around us, it can be difficult to think of taking time to pause and plan. However, it is even more essential that we do this now than at more normal business times. An excellent HBR article gives some great guidance.

Key questions you must ask as you plan for possibilities

Leadership and their teams must follow an agile and adaptable process that enables them to find possibilities within the changes they must make. It has been amazing in recent weeks to see how creative people have become on the use of social media, new ways of promoting and running their business and thinking about how to develop and use their skills even as their worries grow.

Essentially this process asks:

  1. When it’s all over what do we want to look back and say we did well?
  2. Why does that matter?
  3. How is business just now? What’s happening?
  4. What could happen and when?
  5. What must we do?

Why not ask them to yourself now? Of course, each question can be broken down to find out more. Consider is affected and in what way? Ask how the integrity of the business will be maintained. Look for the opportunities that lie within the adversity. The process communicated with transparency can build trust and revisit the values of the organisation as it reflects respect to all the people involved in the business. This is true particularly when hard decisions may need to be made.

Building resilience within

These testing times call for resilience which  can be developed. In her excellent and moving Ted talk, Lucy Hone, gives three key tips for resilience based on her own grave experience of loss. My summary is that they are:

  1. Don’t take events personally. Rephrase the question ‘why me?’ to ‘why not me?’
  2. Practice and become skilled at focusing on where to put your attention toward things that are the good. This will challenge you to reframe negative views to seek out positivity however fragile.
  3. Remember to ask if what you are doing helping or harming yourself (for instance, are the endless news reels of Corona updates helpful)? Stop it if its harming you and refocus on other activities, taking each day at a time.

Use coaching to move forward and through

Good leaders offer direction and inspiration to their teams. They work to protect the business and enable the uncovering of opportunities in the changing circumstances.

Leaders who don’t plan and dont communicate their thinking have made a choice – albeit passively!  If you are sitting with no plan or your teams are unclear of what you think and why, consider this consciously, fully cognisant of the potential outcome it supports. Consider your alternatives.  

Being expected to make decisions even when you might be worried and anxious yourself is isolating. You must be supportive even when you may feel you need it more or exhaustion precludes clarity.

Coaching offers the space where in partnership with your coach, you can examine your intentions, have your assumptions challenged, expose your worries and make a stronger more focussed set of decisions to move forward. All this takes place as your are also looking after yourself.

Pick your coach carefully and expect to be challenged in ways that make you better able to plan for the weeks and months of uncertainty ahead…and beyond.  CONTACT ME!

Wishing you continued excellent business and personal health! And as Isaac Newton – finder of possibilities in the midst of disasters – said ““No great discovery was ever made without a bold guess.”




Coaching for business continuity

Getting in control of business continuity in times of crisis

Headless Chickens, Denial and the Mothers of Invention!

Chickens with heads in tact

No this is not the name of  Nick Cave’s new band. Rather I am talking about how coaching can help as you think about business continuity.

In the face of the rapid rise of Covid 19 you maybe feeling like a proverbial headless chicken, or rather frustrated by the panic and in denial that there’s anything to worry about. You may even feel that we have more to fear from the fear itself. 

All are common and unsurprising.  Whichever it is, we must agree that these are unprecedented times. They will affect both you, your family, and your teams and their families. It is likely to that your suppliers and customers will need to change their behaviour and this in turn will have an impact on the work you do. 

Managing your work through the current health crisis will be a significant test of your skills. As a leader it will challenge you to find invention in response to necessity.  Hopefully in the coming months you will steer your organisation without loss of life and you will emerge stronger and wiser. As a leader you have a significant role in that outcome. Coaching has a key role to play in supporting your management of business continuity.

Hasty reaction or planned response?

At these times of uncertainty your mettle will be tested.  Even for seasoned leaders, there is a strong temptation to react as events unfold rather than plan and prioritise. Too often businesses communicate hastily rather than effectively.  

Some quick questions to consider:

  1. Do your staff feel supported and informed of how you see the need to respond and their role in it in the coming 4-6months?
  2. Are you able to manage your own health and well being in and outside of work just now?
  3. Do you have an understanding of how your business may be affected in the short to medium term with a plan you are able to review as the situation unfolds? 

How can coaching help?

Well thought through and authentic risk management reviewed and applied for a crisis can serve to find the best course of action for you, your teams and your business. However leadership is a lonely place and time to pause reflect and think through your options can be hard to find.  

Coaching provides a fresh pair of non-judgemental eyes and questions that enable your reflection and support improved planning. 

From denial to the Nile

Drawing on the understanding of years of work in high risk contexts, my coaching can help you think through the range of issues affecting your decision-making as your remain true to yourself and your organisation’s mission. I will help you find confidence by identifying strengths and opportunities you have to hand even as you consider the risks you, your colleagues and your organisation faces.

Let’s work together as you use coaching for business continuity. Take action before its a last resort.  Get in touch for a 15 minute consultation to get started today.


Is a team improved without a leader?

Does a team always have to have a leader? I asked this question at recent team coaching workshop. The reaction from fellow participants was thoughtful if generally negative. Some said that the team would be rudderless. Others said all groups need leaders, how else would you get anything done?

This interesting article from the Drucker Foundation 2001 explores the impact when an orchestra – the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra – chose not to have a conductor.  Obviously in a team the conductor is the equivalent of the usual business leader, carrying the responsibility for output and performance on his or her broad shoulders so the experiment excited the interest of greats like Drucker. In the article, members of the orchestra observed that the results were surprising. Far from losing direction, turn over, engagement and performance all remained good in spite of the absence of the leadership role.

Further, in 2007  Wiki notes: March 2007, [that] Orpheus became one of the first winners of the Worldwide Award for the Most Democratic Workplaces sponsored by WorldBlu, Inc., a Washington, D.C.-based organization specializing in organizational democracy.

Now in 2019 the leaderless orchestra is still going strong. Some argue that their music is better for not being beholden to the over-ruling decision-making of the conductor’s interpretation. You can make your own mind up with some of these clips of their performances on the BBC.

Would your team be better if it were a bit less led?


Open a conversation with this team tester

The high performance of teams is an art not a science. That said, like good art, teams combine elements that when done well can enable performance (see this post). Because teams are at the heart of every excellent business they have been studied, measured considered and explored. The following 14 points are a summary of many such investigations and may support the analysis of your team:

  • Clear vision and purpose
  • Identity as a team
  • Composed of the right balance of roles to get the job done
  • Made of skilled and effective individuals clear about their roles
  • Constructive and harmonious relationships within the team
  • Effective leadership
  • Individual learning and development of team members
  • Sound processes
  • Open to change and creative
  • Completion- seeing it through
  • Recognition for success
  • Good internal communications
  • Effective communication to other teams and stakeholders
  • Regular review of performance

How are you doing from 0-20 in each area?

Use the following grid mark with an X where you believe your team sits in each area. This can provide a great opening for a conversation about what GOOD or EVEN BETTER could look like!  Once you’re done ask: Could it be better?  Get in touch to discuss your ideas!

0-4 5-9 10-14 15-20
Unclear Clear purpose
No identity Identity
Unbalanced role Balance of roles
Skills shortage Skilled
Disharmony Harmony
Ineffective leadership Effective leadership
Low L&D High L&D
Poor processes Sound processes
Closed to ideas Open and creative
Nothing gets finished On time completion
Un-recognised Recognised for success
Poor internal comms Effective internal comms
No-one knows what you do The work is understood outside the team
Never review/reflect Regularly review