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How to Prevent Failure in Working From Home to Address the Covid-19 Coronavirus Pandemic

So many companies are shifting their employees to working from home to address the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. Yet they’re not considering the potential disasters that can occur as a result of this transition.

An example of this is what one of my coaching clients experienced a few months before the pandemic hit. Pete is a mid-level manager in the software engineering unit of an entrepreneurial startup that quickly grew to 400 office-based employees doing Electronic Health Records (EHRs). He was one of the leaders tasked by his company’s senior management team with shifting their employees to a work-from-home setup, due to rising rents on their office building.

Specifically, Pete led the team that managed the transition for all 400 employees to telework, due to his previous experience in helping small teams of 3 to 6 people in the company transition to working from home in the past. However, the significantly larger number of people they had to assist now was proving to be a challenge. So was the short amount of time available to this project, which was only four weeks, and resulted from a failure in negotiation with the landlord of the office building.

3 Key Steps to Preventing Disasters in Implementing Decisions

When Pete approached me for advice, I recommended the “Failure-Proofing” strategy, which is a pragmatic and easy-to-use technique to defend against planning and project disasters.

Step 1: Imagine that the decision, project, or process definitely failed, and brainstorm reasons for why your plan failed

Meet with your key stakeholders and discuss your plan. Make sure to provide all the details. Next, use an approach informed by the Premortem technique and ask the participants to imagine a future where the plan failed. Doing so empowers everyone, even those who are confident that the plan will succeed, to tap their creativity in coming up with potential reasons for the failure.

Each participant should anonymously write out three possible reasons that the plan failed. The reasons should include internal decisions within the scope of the project team, such as manpower or budget restrictions. It should also include potential external factors, such as new policies set by government agencies.

Next, the facilitator gathers the participants’ statements and discusses the central themes raised as reasons for the plan’s failure. The facilitator should highlight reasons that would not usually be brought up if the process of writing down the reasons and discussing them was not anonymous. If you will be doing this technique by yourself, list down separate reasons for the plan’s failure from the perspective of each relevant aspect of yourself.

Going back to Pete, he decided to gather 6 stakeholders composed of one manager each from the 4 departments that urgently needed to be shifted to a work-from-home setup, as well as one team leader each from the two teams which would provide auxiliary support to Pete’s team while they were facilitating the transition of the teams. He recruited Ann, a member of the firm’s Advisory Board, to be an independent facilitator.

Ann discussed the current plan, which was to shift all 400 employees to a remote work setup in four weeks. Everything – even business meetings – would be done online after four weeks. Pete’s team would migrate the 400 employees to a remote work setup in four weeks, and will be doing so in batches of 100 employees per week. The records division would be included in the last batch to be migrated, to give ample time to convert all documents and processes to digital forms.

After outlining the plan, everyone submitted their anonymous reasons for failure. Ann read out the participants’ anonymous statements, which highlighted one key theme: The plan failed because it wasn’t communicated in a clear and timely manner. Most of the participants raised doubts that management can communicate the plan efficiently due to past cases of miscommunication of company policy changes.

Step 2: Brainstorm ways to fix problems and integrate your ideas into the plan

Pick several plan failures that are the most relevant to highlight, and think of ways to solve these, including how to tackle possible mental blindspots and cognitive biases. In addition, present any evidence you might use that would serve as an indicator that the failure you are addressing is happening or about to happen. For this particular step, it is critical to have people with authority in the room.

The facilitator writes down the potential solutions. If you are going through this step by yourself, ask for outside input at this point.

Circling back to Pete’s discussion group, Mary, an HR manager, took on the task of addressing the communication problem proactively.

Mary will discuss the communication issues tackled in the discussion group with senior management. She will then propose for senior management to send out immediately a company-wide announcement on the migration to telecommuting and the steps that will be taken.

Then, each senior manager would have in-person meetings with their direct reports in middle management, to get their buy-in and ensure that the message passed effectively down the chain of command. In turn, the middle managers would meet with the frontline staff and work out details of the next steps for each team.

Step 3: Imagine that the decision, project, or process succeeded spectacularly, brainstorm ways of achieving this outcome, and integrate your ideas into the plan

We tackled failure, so now let’s imagine that your plan succeeded superbly! This way, your company can maximize its success.

Imagine that you are in a future where your plan succeeded beyond expectations. Ask each participant to anonymously write out possible reasons for the plan’s success. After that, ask the facilitator to focus on the key themes.

Next, the facilitator gathers everyone’s statements and leads the group in discussing the reasons given. Assess anonymously the potential of each reason for success, and decide which ones need to be focused on. Check for cognitive biases as well. After that, come up with ways of maximizing these reasons for success.

The facilitator writes down the ideas to maximize the plan’s success. If you are going through this step by yourself, ask for outside input at this point.

In Pete’s discussion group, Ann asked each participant to anonymously write out the reasons for the plan’s success. When Ann read out the statements, there was one key theme: They imagined that the plan succeeded because the management was very responsive to anxieties and concerns from employees during the transition. To address that, Pete’s team set up a number that staff could text or call, which was always staffed by some members of the team. Then, they could quickly answer questions, or route the question to the person who had the answer.

To prevent work-from-home disasters in this time of transitioning to telework to manage the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic, make sure to use the “Failure-Proofing” technique prior to implementing decisions of any significance, as well as to assess the management of substantial projects and processes.

Written by Dr. Gleb Tsipursky. Have you read?

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Dr. Gleb Tsipursky
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is an internationally-renowned thought leader in future-proofing and cognitive bias risk management. He serves as the CEO of the boutique future-proofing consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, which specializes in helping forward-looking leaders avoid dangerous threats and missed opportunities.

A best-selling author, he wrote Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters (Career Press, 2019), The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships (New Harbinger, 2020), and Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic (Changemakers Books, 2020). His writing was translated into Chinese, Korean, German, Russian, Polish, and other languages. His expertise comes from over 20 years of consulting, coaching, and speaking and training for mid-size and large organizations ranging from Aflac to Xerox. It also comes from over 15 years in academia as a behavioral scientist, including 7 as a professor at Ohio State University.

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow him on LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.