In times of crisis like we are experiencing with the COVID-19 virus, many leaders struggle with trying to decide if they should take control of the situation and tell others what to do or involve their teams in deciding what to do. They frame it as an either/or issue – quickly act on my own or take the time to include others.

In our experience, the answer is you should do both. Leaders need to fight a natural tendency to circle the wagons and try to solve immense problems themselves. Yes, they need to immediately set the tone and direction for the team. But they also need to tap into the experiences and wisdom of team members to make sure they are setting the right priorities, solving the right problems, and leveraging the creativity of team members to generate innovative solutions to novel problems.

It Takes the Leader and the Team

Let’s look at one of the most famous examples of an unanticipated crisis – Apollo 13. Two days into Apollo 13’s mission to land on the moon, there was an explosion on the main spaceship and the astronauts had to move into the smaller lunar module and immediately return to earth. Soon after the astronauts started their trip back, carbon dioxide levels began to reach a dangerous point. If they did not quickly reduce the CO2 levels, the astronauts would die. But the CO2 filtering system from the main spaceship did not fit into the lunar modules’ compartment and could not be used.

They had to figure out, very quickly, how to jerry-rig a solution before they all died.

While Gene Kranz, the leader of the lunar mission in Houston, kept his composure and famously said, “Failure is not an option,” he did not try to solve the issue himself. He knew he needed a team of people who trusted each other and knew how to collaborate. He quickly pivoted and assembled a diverse team and had them create a room with that only contained the exact equipment and material the astronauts had in the module to see what the astronauts could do to solve the problem.

Kranz gave them a combination of a clear direction, the freedom to come up with their own solution and a set of constraints that enabled the innovation needed to solve a completely unique crisis no one had ever experienced before.

Through true cross-functional collaboration, the team used their skills to create a way to get the service module equipment to successfully work in the lunar module and save the crew. Jim Lovell, one of the astronauts, later described this improvisation as "a fine example of cooperation between ground and space.” Kranz set the tone and the goal, but he knew it took a team to bring them home safely.

So, what were the lessons from Apollo 13 and how can you apply them to a business crisis? Let’s look at a situation one of our clients faced.

Learning How to Pivot and Bringing Your Team Along

We recently worked with Mary, the president of an industrial manufacturing business, who was facing a crisis. A key supplier had suddenly declared bankruptcy just as her business unit was about to begin working on one of the biggest customer orders they ever had. The timing could not have been worse.

To make the situation even more untenable, the team of cross-functional unit heads she had inherited and reported to her did not trust each other. She was extremely worried they would not be able to collaborate enough to work out a way to deliver the customer’s order on time and within budget. Clearly, she knew she could not solve this problem herself. She had to turn to her team.

Mary, just like Gene Kranz, kept her composure, acknowledged the reality of the problem, set a clear goal, and set up a process for the team to focus on and solve the problem. However, unlike the team at NASA, her team lacked the unity, trust and the ability to have constructive conflict needed to be successful. The team was not set up for success.

Kranz’ team had a unifying goal (get them home safe) that could only be accomplished if they collaborated.  Mary’s team members only related to their own unit’s goals and had little incentive to collaborate. So, Mary, with our support, had team members work on a common team purpose and team operating principles.  While this may seem simplistic, in our experience many senior teams do not have a common understanding of their role or purpose in the organization or have “rules of the road” – how to make decisions, how to raise issues, etc.

As a result of these exercises, the team not only began to see how they were interconnected, but the “rules of the road discussion” started to create the psychological safety needed for constructive conflict and innovation. We also worked with Mary to construct some collaborative problem-solving exercises so the team could work on real issues with a facilitator who could make sure people felt safe and could have productive debate.

Once the team had a reasonable level of trust and collaboration skills, the leader pivoted, stepped back and let the team work on getting the needed supplies and delivering the product on time and on budget to the customer. The bottom line – the team delivered the product to the customer on time and under budget!  They came up with innovative ways to get the supplies they needed. They were able to make decisions in half the time it used to take. 

By setting a clear goal and knowing when to pivot and step back, Mary was able to unleash the true genius of her team.  They were able to deliver an exceptional product in record time. Not only was a crisis averted, but the team now had the culture and skills to meet future setbacks.

Don’t Miss the Opportunity to Unleash Your Team

As you face the COVID-19 crisis, or any unanticipated disruption, consider when – and how – you will bring your team in to help make the decisions, innovate solutions, and turn towards the future. Consider these key steps as you do that.

  • Quickly and clearly set the vision and the goal for the team to tackle
  • Bring the team together—virtually if need be—to establish their purpose and how they will work together
  • Even if you think they know this, take the time to recalibrate together and it will accelerate their progress
  • Make sure you facilitate and help them create a trusted environment for debate and discussion
  • Then provide guidance, access to needed resources, and focus on priorities as needed

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