Move Quickly – “Speed Trumps Perfection” – Dr Michael J Ryan

Phase 1: Rapid Response and Initial Reset
Step 1: Sense Making and Situational Awareness 2

NHS Nightingale Hospital London 2020

A short, sharp and powerful piece of advice from Dr Michael J Ryan who is an Executive Director at the World Health Organisation (WHO). In an 80-second clip of Dr Ryan that has gone viral he conveyed his thoughts based on 30 years of medical experience and from working in many emergency management scenarios, such as, Iraq during the Gulf War and during the Ebola crisis. It isn’t the same I know, but, when facilitating “kaizen” events as a young management consultant one of the guidelines I was always encouraged to use was that 80% of a good solution was better than 0% of a perfect solution. It is a version of the well know Voltaire or Confucius based quote “don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good” and Dr Ryan agrees with respect to emergency management. Dr Ryan had some other strong points to make in his hard-hitting press conference.

Bringing Citizens Home

“Be fast, have no regrets. You must be the first mover. The virus will always get you if you don’t move quickly.”
“If you need to be right before you move, you will never win.”
“The problem in society we have at the moment is that everyone is afraid of making a mistake.”
“But the greatest error is not to move. The greatest error is to be paralysed by the fear of failure.”
But is it right in the times we find ourselves in? Wouldn’t there be a danger that any leadership decision we make or action we take is just born out of panic? How do we rapidly make sense of a situation and what type of behaviour the system is displaying?

“In Praise of the Incomplete Leader.”

So, given that the WHO advice is to act fast should the leadership response be to quickly stand strong in front of the troops and charge? Leading from the front is a traditional caricature of a leader but, is it right? In their well-known Harvard Business Review article Professor Deborah Ancona and her fellow authors explain that “most leaders experience a profound dichotomy every day, and it’s a heavy burden. They are trapped in the myth of the complete leader —the person at the top without flaws.” Many leaders facing the chaotic, dynamic nature of the current situation will empathise with that view. In the article Ancona and her co-authors advise that “no leader is perfect. The best ones don’t try to be—they concentrate on honing their strengths and find others who can make up for their limitations.” The article goes on to outline the proposition that organisations need four leadership capabilities to succeed. One of those four that is currently very important is “Sensemaking”.

“Leadership in an Age of Uncertainty” and Sensemaking

The leadership capability of “Sensemaking” is an evolution and augmentation of the thinking of organisational psychologist Karl Weick. In 1995 Weick outlined seven properties of sensemaking that reflected a transition and change of emphasis, as he saw it, from “decision-making to sense-making” and from “planning into action”. In “Sensemaking: Framing and Acting in the Unknown”, Professor Ancona says that “sensemaking refers to how we structure the unknown so as to be able to act in it. Sensemaking involves coming up with a plausible understanding—a map—of a shifting world.” We will come to landscapes, maps and climate in the next blog.

Engage in Sensemaking

1Get data from multiple sources: customers, suppliers, employees, competitors, other departments, and investors.
2Involve others in your sensemaking. Say what you think you are seeing, and check with people who have different perspectives from yours.
3Use early observations to shape small experiments in order to test your conclusions. Look for new ways to articulate alternatives and better ways to understand options.
4Do not simply apply existing frameworks but instead be open to new possibilities. Try not to describe the world in stereotypical ways, such as good guys and bad guys, victims and oppressors, or marketers and engineers.
(Source: HBR 2007 In Praise of the Incomplete Leader, Deborah Ancona et al)

“Chaotic Contexts: The Domain of Rapid Response”

A well-known and powerful sensemaking model is Professor Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework covered famously in the 2007 Harvard Business Review article “A leader’s framework for decision making”. The framework is illustrated below with a figure from that article.

Cynefin Framework

The article outlines that “The Cynefin framework helps leaders determine the prevailing operative context so that they can make appropriate choices. Each domain requires different actions.” If we are to use the framework as a lens for sensemaking we might justifiably place the coronavirus pandemic in the chaotic domain. The authors characterise the chaotic domain as displaying; “high turbulence, no direct cause and effect, unknowables, many decisions to make with no time to think and high tension”. As with all generic models it isn’t a 100% perfect fit but it best describes where we find ourselves. Once the domain is identified from it’s characteristics what does the framework suggest a leader does next?

The Leader’s Job….

The article outlines that in the chaotic domain the leader’s job is to “look for what works rather than trying to find the “right” answer, take immediate action to regain stability and control (command and control) and provide clear, direct communication.” If we use the Cynefin framework as a sensemaking lens and re-visit Dr Michael Ryan’s quotes above we can see the compelling logic of his advice. With a few weeks of time passing we are able to test that advice against the real-life evidence. In the UK, BMJ have produced and published an infographic showing different country’s Covid-19 policy responses and their impact on reported deaths.

BMJ – Covid -19 Policy Responses 19 May 2020

Sensemaking is critical when determining the “right” response for a leader to take in any situation and set of circumstances. It is also important that the same leader recognises a change in context and modifies the approach accordingly. Missing that transition is a common failure. Professor Snowden and Mary Boone note that “indeed, a specific danger for leaders following a crisis is that some of them become less successful when the context shifts because they are not able to switch styles to match it.” In the next blog we will cover situational awareness in greater detail and discuss landscape, maps and climate.