Boards and Crisis: Seeing the bigger picture

By Digoshen Impact Partner Peter Crow.

 

The unexpected outbreak and spread of Covid-19 early this year has had a seismic effect on the lives and well being of people, around the world. Politicians and government officials have activated crisis response plans (some more quickly and effectively than others) and business leaders have reached for their continuity plans. Amongst the turbulence, little if anything is clear—except that SARS-CoV-2 has our attention.

Horizons have shortened, and most if not all resources have been diverted to deal with the situation. This is reasonable, but it also exposes the company to a significant risk. Business leaders (especially boards) need to keep one eye on the future, because the crisis will eventually pass. When it does, companies need to be ready to ‘go’ in the post-crisis environment, lest they be outgunned by others.

The most pressing questions for boards as they look to the future relate to the wider operating context, the answers of which inform strategic choices.
  • What has changed, and what might things look like after the crisis has passed?
  • How does this effect our ability to compete; and our ability to win?
  • What adjustments (both strategic and operational) are needed to ensure the company is positioned to thrive in the future?
​As boards start to work through these and other related questions, careful judgement (wisdom and maturity) is needed, to both balance competing interests (resourcing the crisis v. strategising the future) and to avoid traps that have the potential to stymie the company’s recovery. Here are three pitfalls that can entrap boards:
  • Short horizon and great detail: While horizons are, naturally, shortened during times of crisis, boards need to begin looking further into the future early. But, when they do, they need to resist the temptation to dive into the detail (many directors associate detail with higher quality decisions and the mitigation of risk). This is a trap. A strong focus on perfection and detail diverts one’s gaze away from the big picture, the wider context within which the company operates. Emerging but still weak signals and new risks will be missed. Left unchecked, the resultant strategies and decisions will be little more than long lists of activities. Roger L. Martin’s words speak volumes: “True strategy is about placing bets and making hard choices. The objective is not to eliminate risk but to increase the odds of success”. If in doubt, play long—but refine often.
  • An over-optimistic outlook: Strong leaders like solving problems, but they are also prone to thinking they are better or more capable than they are. We see it in politicians, project leaders and business executives: humans have an innate tendency to overestimate their abilities, especially to predict future outcomes. Boards are no exception. One way of mitigating this is to ensure someone acts as an advocatus diaboli  (devil’s advocate), to challenge the thinking at each step along the way. Another is to explicitly seek expert advice from independent sources. An external facilitator with a strong personality (to manage egos!) can also be very valuable.
  • Confusion over the board–management nexus: This trap is more common than most care to admit. Usage of the term governance over the last 15–20 years has become so widespread (in appropriate and inappropriate contexts), that is has become a panacea for all manner of corporate activity and ills. With it, the board–management nexus has become clouded, with the two parties unsure of who is doing what. If the board and management are to work well together, with the company’s best interests to the fore, a well-defined of division of labour is required, to allocate to tasks explicitly to the board, to management, or to both.
The temptations to look just ahead; embrace detail; mitigate all risks; confuse strategy and tactics; conflate the roles of governance and management; and be highly optimistic are very real—more than many would care to admit. But they are by no means insurmountable.
Boards intent on ensuring the company is well-positioned to emerge from a crisis intact know that high quality steerage and guidance is vital: a clear sense of purpose (reason for being), a coherent and appropriately resourced strategy that is relevant to the circumstances, a dedicated team and effective oversight. They also know that this principle holds regardless of the company’s size, sector or span of operations.
A much brighter future awaits those companies that do not lose sight of the bigger picture as they work through the mire towards solid ground.

 

This article was originally posted at www.petercrow.come/musings

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