COVID-19 series: When the change curve bent


In our last article called Before the Pandemic and How it all Started, we touched upon the topic of how we manage change during business as usual circumstances and how it all came to change. We discussed how it was before the crisis and how it all started to hit us that something was changing but that we could just not yet grasp what it was. As COVID-19 became more and more part of our daily lives as it was becoming a concern, the urgency state quickly set in.

Then came February. We went from planning regular communication and business activities to wondering if we were doing enough to plan and address the crisis that was coming. Put it simply, it was like seeing a storm coming our way, without knowing when and how it would hit.

I recall that even though we felt that here was no urgency, that we were close. It was simply like living between two worlds. One where people tell you that there is no rush and that the activities will be done in a regular manner, and the other where people tell you it’s a crisis and it needs to be done yesterday. And then what happens? Remember the Titanic…

Denial and how it was before the curve bent

At the beginning of February, COVID-19 at that point was not a crisis, but simply another kind of flu or virus. Apart from the specialists in biology and disease who knew more about the coronavirus than the rest of the population, there was no way to even think that a grey cloud was lurking over our blue sky.

At work, we felt that some of our collaborators were resisting putting the necessary activities in place to engage and prevent flu and cold propagation. We focused on raising awareness in the organization about health and safety and make sure we covered all our angles in case of a flu outbreak. We wanted employees to know what information were available to them and wanted to make sure they could order some products in case of a flu outbreak.

Reality is simple. Regular day-to-day corporate life may not always happen at the speed it needs to be when there is no sense of urgency. And this is where it gets interesting. Everyone has their own internal clock that compares Sense of urgency vs Resistance:

This model applies well to normal life mode where there is no real pressure to change. So, we tend to take this one step at a time and focus on helping employees understand. It’s not viral change for sure, but it makes it much slower.

We made sure people had the information and instructions they needed to follow a good health and safety plan. Remember, we were still not fully aware of what was coming at the time. In a way. we got hit by the regular hurdles of resistance. We had people treating this as a regular day-to-day task and we found they were practically in denial. But why is this?

  • Some people did not make the link between COVID-19 and focused on enhancing the health and safety plan.
  • COVID-19 was in the news, but it had only impacted China.
  • And, we tend to not really expect that a change far from us may actually hit us hard.

How resistance disappears in times of urgency or crisis

And then March came and the crisis hit. It hit harder than we thought and it caught the whole organization off guard. That meant that we had to go back to the drawing board and stop talking about health and safety, but rather think about it in terms of how the organization’s tasks, processes, and decisions were going to be made in urgency mode.

The interesting part about managing through a crisis is the capacity for an organization to be ready to activate its business continuity activities and its crisis management practice. As long as you have not lived through a real crisis, like COVID-19 or an ice-storm (blackout of 1998), there is no way for you to determine if your plan is at par with what the organization needs.

We observed one interesting element. Resistance just disappeared as the crisis was growing. What would take days to happen suddenly became possible in hours. People were willing to work overtime to be part of this new movement to help the organization get ready for the impact. Resistance built into resilience. We suddenly started having the same goal and vision: to help employees get prepared for the impact. Communication and engagement became our main priority.

Here are some activities that were put forward:

  • Alignment – short term activities had been planned and a special daily committee was put in place to ensure we had the right information and communicated accordingly.
  • Plan – we had identified our 5 Ws (what, when, where, who and how) and we knew how we were going to engage the organization.
  • Spokesperson – We planned a call with all people managers in the organization so we could start pushing the information and raising the bar of urgency and the importance of being ready.
  • Update employees early and often – We looked at the communication plan and decided to augment the level of information and ensure to create regular touch points with managers and employees. It is better to over-communicate than to allow rumors to fill the void.

Crisis Management – What it took to change and why?

COVID-19 had to take the world by surprise for change to start happening. The crisis hit hard the week of March 9. Crisis Management kicked-in and the whole organization was suddenly put into high alert. That is when resistance simply stopped existing.

It took little pressure from different groups for all to realize how much we had to move the needle to transfer our efforts from day-to-day priorities to shifting our energies on interventions that would help bring forward what we call business continuity activities.

At that point, we moved into crisis mode:

  • Alignment was created at all management levels – to ensure we were more and more ready to understand the impacts of the COVID-19 on the organization.
  • Two levels of governance were created – one more operational and the other more strategic.
  • Different committees were created, which permitted to address different aspects of the crisis. It quickly became clear that work from home was a strategy we needed to adopt. Different teams across the business were able to let us know what they want in terms of decisions and support. This change was led by the people for the people, and this is why it became a success story.
  • Communication became top priority – a new central webpage was created dedicated on COVID-19. It includes communications, job aids, FAQs. We have now been issuing summary communications everyday as information and decisions are made.
  • We aligned with the world around us, literally, and became proactive – With today’s social media and news outlets, and government interventions, decisions we made were now influenced by world, country and regional decisions.

In our next article

We’ll talk about how change management activities need to be adapted and tailored when we are in a crisis. How many of us in consulting or project positions needed to put on hold our projects if they were not directly helping organizations cope with the COVID-19 epidemic?

Stay tuned for our next article named COVID-19: Tailoring Change Management activities during a crisis

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