Since my blog on tracking changes during COVID-19 went viral, I’ve run lots of workshops and sessions helping people apply it in their own context, from community businesses and universities to a range of NHS organisations, religious groups, schools and charities. Far more have picked it up and happily run with it. As a diagnostic it’s helped them understand their situation, capture some of the emerging innovations and consciously respond to the changes from such a disruptive period.
I was particularly keen to develop a way of challenging assumptions and avoiding exploitation of crisis for nefarious means. In particular, I was concerned that COVID19 would be cover to stop certain things and, unless tracked, end their practice all together. Clearly, in some cases, this would be a good thing, particular where practices added no real value to the day job but were performed out of routine. In others, less so, such as when the suspending of legal requirements on organisations reduces an apparent burden but placed many at risk. Another core assumption I wanted to challenge was that we simply press ‘play’ on the paused activities once the crisis is over, as to do so is to fail to account for a significantly changed context. I think the framework achieved this.
Thinking over recent weekends about what this may look like in more routine scenarios, I started building a revised version of the framework. In a previous blog I talked about the inner and outer layers, the important core work and the changing context. The middle section is a rework of my original 2×2 framing, and it looks like this:
What’s different? Philosophically the original framing assumed everything was new and temporary. We’ve either started or stopped something to enable a crisis response, and my framework offered four courses of action post-crisis.
In my reworked framing, I start by recognising that there are two temporary courses of action and two that are permanent, and they relate to the core functions at its heart. The two temporary things we can do form the top row. We can either start something new or pause an existing activity. If we start something without a balancing decision on what we will pause, we are adding to our existing workload. The paused activity is likely to be a part of our core ‘business-as-usual’. Too often we don’t achieve this balance, asking staff to do more with less; if this becomes the norm, it can lead to stress, burn-out, mistakes and increases in turnover.
In this ‘churn zone’ there are also two permanent courses of action that form the bottom row: to find ways of embedding innovations and making them part of the core work, and ending any practices that are obsolete and add no value within the current context. Again, when these two are in balance we are able to work within our existing resource envelope and not add demands to the team or organisation.
Looking at the framework in terms of its two columns we can see more clearly how we can create capacity for the new. The left column shows how we do this, by either pausing part of our business-as-usual or ending things that add no value. The right hand column captures the new things that come into our world and that we need to attend to.
Actively managing this churn zone enables us to maintain a balanced portfolio of work. It needs to balance in terms of time, resource, capacity and energy between the two rows (the temporary and permanent) and the two columns (the things we’re leaving in the past or taking into the future).
If it’s all temporary, we are making no concrete decisions about our work. Everything becomes crazy and we’ll run around like corporate headless chickens. If our focus is only on making change permanent we run the risk that our pipeline of ideas and our ability to respond to opportunity dries up. If everything is about the future there is the risk the organisation doesn’t have the capacity to absorb it and we’ll overload our capacity and demotivate our staff. If everything is about the past we run the risk of managing our decline or, at worst, grinding to a halt, with no new ideas and practices coming in to the organisation; we’ll be creating capacity with nothing new to focus it on.
If all four are in balance we are most likely to be operating effectively. We’ll continue to deliver our business-as-usual functions but with sufficient flexibility. We’ll have the capacity to scan our context for the signs of change and then experiment with the opportunities that emerge. We’ll be temporarily pausing and un-pausing core work to create space for this experimentation. We’ll be embedding new and innovative practices into our core work in no small part because we’ve created capacity to do so by ending practices that are no longer fit for purpose.
We might think of the walls between these four zones as being permeable, just as they are between the three layers of context (what’s changing), churn (what’s new) and core (what’s important). To make them impermeable or only focus on one or two at the expense of the others is to start a short journey into chaos and confusion. Clearly, that’s not where we want to be.
Each area requires , and benefits from, continuous and flexible judgements around what’s important. Which aspects of our new work that we are experimenting with do we want to embed and which do we need to let go? Which aspects of BAU can we temporarily pause with no attendant impact on service? If there are none, are we willing to add resources to take on the new or respond to the changing context? These are core strategic questions that leaders and managers ask on a day-to-day basis as they navigate the complex, uncertain and ambiguous world we operate in.