CEO Insider

Resilience And Innovation: Lessons From Pandemic

Steve Brown

Leaders have a lot on their plates right now. Pandemic presents a multi-dimensional challenge: Public health, operational, and economic crises, all rolled into one.

Wrestling this three-headed beast is the metaphorical equivalent of having to walk, chew gum, and juggle chainsaws at the same time. Adding complexity, each crisis demands short- and long-term strategic responses.

Much of the short-term work is already done. You’ve already taken steps to keep employees and customers safe, preserved cash, and configured your business to operate during pandemic.

Pandemic illuminated the fragility of our society. It failed the pressure test. We need more resilient institutions, industries, and organizations so we have the strength and flexibility to weather future storms.

To navigate this treacherous time, we must build resilience and drive innovation into every part of our companies. Here are five steps to building a more resilient society and to catapult ourselves out of recession.

Put on your oxygen mask first

Whenever we fly, we are reminded to put on our own oxygen mask before assisting others. Resilient leaders create resilient teams. Resilient teams build resilient organizations that create resilient businesses. One follows the next. It all starts with you. You can’t help your team unless you’re healthy and firing on all (or at least most) cylinders.
Each of us has a different tolerance for ambiguity. Some thrive on it; most don’t. Uncertainty leads to anxiety, and anxiety creates a physiological “fight, flight, or freeze” stress response in our brains that compromises our decision-making skills. To avoid that fate, we must all become more comfortable with ambiguity.

Here are a few simple tips that work:

Maintain routine. A morning routine calms the brain by establishing a sense of certainty. That foundation will enable you to handle increased ambiguity in your workday.

Focus on what you can manage. Ask yourself these two questions:

  • Has your company’s mission/vision/purpose changed since “the before times”?
  • Have your company values or culture changed?
  • The answer to both questions is most likely “no”. What has changed is how we execute against our mission and how we put our values into action.

Practice self-care. Eat well, breathe, exercise, sleep, relax, and invest in yourself by doing things that recharge your battery, whether that’s meditating, reading, or taking a walk. Give yourself permission to be a little more messy than usual. Be kind to yourself.

Your team is relying on you. Don’t run on empty as a badge of honor. Invest in yourself so you can support their resilience.

Build a resilient team

Your employees are in shock. Everybody processes grief (for the “before times”) and stress in different ways. During crisis, leaders must communicate clearly, calmly, and regularly to steady nerves and build confidence in what’s next. Remind your team they are essential to the success of the business, focus them on shared goals, and talk about what you can accomplish together.

Some simple tips:

  • Be human. People will remember this time, your role in it, and above all how you made them feel. Be transparent, honest, and open. You don’t have to be perfect; Nobody expects that. Be clear when you don’t have all the answers and let your team know you are working hard to better understand the situation and build a plan.
  • Listen. Recognize, acknowledge, and empathize with your team’s concerns and fears. Help them feel safe—physically and psychologically—by making them feel including in the conversation and demonstrating confidence the team’s ability to prevail.
  • Over-communicate. That means frequency, not word count. Set expectations for a communications cadence and remember that in a crisis no news is perceived as bad news. If you have no update to give, communicate anyway. Use the opportunity to take questions, listen, and remind people that every crisis has an end.
  • Build community. Encourage employees to support each other. Lead team activities online and unite people around common goals.

Build a resilient organization

A resilient team will build a resilient organization designed to weather future storms. Some ideas to consider:

  • Cross-train and distribute core functions. Identify vulnerabilities, cross-train talent, and spread core functions over multiple locations wherever it makes sense.
  • Succession planning. Know who take over each person’s role if they need to step aside for a time.
  • Go digital. Digitize the “employee journey” of as many workers as you can. Move enterprise systems to the cloud and invest in secure digital collaboration tools that keep remote employees connected to their work, to your culture, and to each other.
  • Go remote. Consider the merits of becoming a remote-first company versus an office-first company. Lower real-estate costs, increased resilience, greater flexibility, and access to a global talent pool make this an attractive approach. If you haven’t already, shift from taking attendance to measuring employee results.

Build a resilient business

This time is a pressure test of your company that has exposed its weaknesses. Apply these insights to build operational, financial, and supply resilience and make your company more valuable in the process. Some places to start:

  • Automate and digitize. Accelerate automation programs (robots don’t get sick) and ensure your customer journey is 100% digital, end-to-end.
  • Build a robust supply chain. Diversify and geographically disperse your suppliers. Onshore, near-shore, and localize as needed. Modernize your supply systems with full track and trace and provenance capabilities.
  • Boost cash reserves. Review your debt structure and consider ways to build permanent cash reserves. Avoid the thrash of firing and rehiring talent when the next storm comes.

Build an innovation strategy to catapult yourself out of recession

The “previous normal” of January 2020 is gone, forever. Embrace the “next normal” and drive innovation into every aspect of business to exit recession on a growth trajectory.

Things to try:

  • Build your technology literacy. Understand how artificial intelligence, Blockchain, augmented reality, sensors and other technology can solve new business problems and boost profits.
  • Challenge your team. Set the expectation that you need to think and operate like a startup. Encourage and reward informed risk-taking and innovation efforts.
  • Be ready to pivot. Car dealerships are selling online, clinics are emphasizing tele-health services, and restaurants are selling meal kits. Don’t cling to the previous normal. Embrace this one.
  • Automate and augment. Automate tasks and elevate your workers’ capabilities using artificial intelligence, augmented reality, robotics, sensors, and data.
  • Make it easier to do business with you. Improve customer service and develop new digital channels with immersive customer journeys.
  • Reignite demand. Drive technology into new products and services to turbo-charge sales. Use new technology to elevate your offering and either get paid more, or create annuity businesses by turning products into services, and services into experiences.

Closing thought

Great companies will distinguish themselves from average ones by building resilience at every level and by fully embracing technology innovation to catapult themselves out of recession on a growth path.

Written by Steve Brown. Have you read?
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Steve Brown
Steve Brown is an energetic speaker, author, strategist, and advisor with over 30 years of experience in high tech. He is the former futurist and chief evangelist at Intel Corporation and helps others understand the business and societal impacts of new technologies and how they will shape the future five, 10 and 15 years from now. He is the author of The Innovation Ultimatum: How Six Strategic Technologies will Reshape Every Business in the 2020s. Steve holds Bachelor of Science and Master of Engineering degrees in Micro-Electronic Systems Engineering from Manchester University. He was born in the U.K. and became a U.S. citizen in 2008. He lives with his wife in Portland, OR. Steve Brown is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. He can be found on Linkedin.