Strategizing in Times of Crisis

In the haze of a pandemic, here are five things operational leaders should start to work on
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It seems like every day of this coronavirus pandemic we wake up to a new reality. One day Canadians are told to return home before (the government reminds them) “we can’t help you get home”, then the borders are closed to non-essential traffic, and most recently, all non-essential businesses are told to close for at least 14 days. As business leaders, we do not need a history of how or why we got here; this is where we are.

It would be inappropriate to speculate how long this will last. So, assume we will all endure at least a fiscal quarter of financial pain and other social hardship and, as harsh as that sounds, get on with it. Employees, customers and suppliers are looking for leadership in a time of crisis. These events are like none other many of us have experienced. However, we can appreciate that the feeling of, “What do I do?” is completely normal. With that in mind, I have assembled an Operations Strategy in a Crisis Playbook that may be helpful in our current environment. 

1. Determine your minimum viable product or service

Less customer traffic or fewer employees on-site does not mean you have to shut down, even if the government is telling everyone to stay home. Evaluate your business and determine if there is a virtual version of your offering that may still create value. As an example, Queen’s University pivoted to online course delivery essentially over a weekend in March. I taught a master’s class in operations strategy in person on Friday, for example, and then taught virtually on Monday. While some activities, class tours and other experiential events have been cancelled, the most important consideration is that students are able to finish their courses and semesters. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough in this situation.

Health clinics and construction trades, such as plumbers, are offering diagnosis of problems by phone or video, and determining if in-person treatment or service is required. Yoga and fitness studios have moved classes online, even in a rough version recorded on their phones, and customers are thankful. Landscapers can do video estimates of a job and build a plan for when doors open again. 

2. Pay attention to your team

Appreciate that the current situation is even more uncertain and ambiguous for your employees. The stress associated with not only their uncertain work situation, but their health, families and children out of school all combine to create significant anxiety. Make a point of communicating every day and reinforcing key messages. We have all received emails from airlines, retailers and others over the past week outlining what they are doing to manage the crisis. You need to do the same with your employees.

Whatever the new work environment looks like, it may require different support or operating tools. Facilitate those needs, ask employees how you can help them, and be as flexible as possible in the delivery of that minimum viable product or service. 

3. Take advantage of the slower pace

As the saying goes, never waste a good crisis. You likely have been carrying around a to-do list of things you have wanted to get done, but never seem to have the time for. You have that time now. Queen’s Principal Patrick Deane commented the other day how moving classes to online delivery would have taken us 10 years in any other environment; yet here we are. Here are some potential actions: 

• Purge slow-moving inventory, refresh your layout or build a new menu for your restaurant.

• Enhance your online shopping or service platform, appointment booking process or photo and image gallery.

• Pursue training or executive education via an online platform or webinar.

• Evaluate internal and customer-facing processes for pain points and streamline and simplify interactions and core services.

4. Rationalize your strategy for 2020

Roughly 80 per cent of leaders believe their organization has too many priorities. While the current conditions are extreme, now is the time to review your vision for 2020 and perhaps 2021. Instead of having three or four key objectives (or more in some cases), what are the one or two most important things your business needs to accomplish this year? Take a Lean approach and consider what is most important to your customers today, and especially a year or two from now, then adjust your plans to get those elements done.

While it may feel justified, ignoring the plan altogether can be as damaging as trying to do too much. As society emerges from the crisis, it will be very important to build momentum quickly.

 5. Do one big thing this year

This one is about morale. Recognize that people need to belong to something, and often a larger cause can be that thing. Consider a company-wide participation in an event such as Relay for Life or the Terry Fox Run. Remember the ice-bucket challenge for charity? There are all kinds of similar activities out there now through social media. In 2019, a retailer in Trenton, Ontario sponsored the largest human maple leaf on Canada Day with 3,942 participants, a Guinness World Record.

That big thing can be social, physical or business-driven, but use it to remind people that the organization and the team that runs it are special.

Finally, consider that these events are a significant exercise in resilience. My friend and mentor Don used to tell me, “Barry, you can’t buy training like this.” When we get through this—and we will—students will be able to talk about how they finished their semester or degree virtually. Organizations will reflect on the financial pain, of course, but some will also acknowledge how they used the crisis to make themselves better and haven’t looked back. What stories will you be able to tell?


Barry Cross is Distinguished Faculty Fellow of Operations Strategy at Smith School of Business

Smith School of Business

Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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