Crisis management: Four key lessons that digital leaders need to learn

For senior executives who manage complex issues on a regular basis, COVID-19 has required a rapid response like no crisis before it – here’s what business leaders can learn.

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From enacting business continuity plans to enabling flexible working and onto transforming business models, digital leaders have had to manage the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on their organisation, its employees and its customers.

This process has been a tougher challenge for some leaders than others. More than a third (36%) of organisations say they will be looking to improve their crisis management processes post-COVID, according to Grant Thornton's International Business Report.

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For those executives who have faced this challenging environment head-on, what has the coronavirus pandemic taught them about developing effective crisis management policies? Four digital leaders share the lessons they've learnt from dealing with COVID-19.

1. Have a plan and enact it flexibly

Wincanton CIO Richard Gifford says dealing with the business impact of the coronavirus has taught him two key things about crisis management: first, the importance of having a business continuity plan in the first place; and second, the flexibility that you need to have when dealing with that plan.

"So, for example, pandemic was always on the list of risks but we probably thought that was never going to happen," he says. "However, the fact that we had that plan in place, in quite a complex business, was good – and it meant that we could deviate from that pretty rapidly if we needed to."

Gifford says responding to the crisis has also reinforced the importance of relentless team communications. Throughout the early days of the pandemic, people in the tech department were always in touch with one another.

"We were constantly realigning what we were doing and how we were treating things. Technology played a massive part in all of that, so we could do things quite quickly," he says.

Gifford says the ability to change direction quickly could have a lasting impact on decision-making processes. A CIO suggesting that everybody should work from home 12 months ago would have had to pitch their idea – perhaps unsuccessfully – to an executive committee. This year, companies have simply had to embrace remote working, says Gifford.

"We've just done it – and that's more like millennial-type thinking; think something and then do it. I think we're much more like that now, while we still recognise the importance of proper governance. But I think that the urgency and the need to get things done rapidly is now more obvious than previously," he says.

2. Keep everything really simple for everyone

Nick Burton, chief information and digital officer at Avon International, says the biggest crisis management lesson he's learnt from responding to the coronavirus pandemic is straightforward: "Be very clear at all times – it's as simple as that."

Burton says that the day-to-day focus of the team was usually on three key priorities. Rather than worrying about a range of technology concerns, the team would focus on those priorities. As those priority items were ticked off, other items would be added to the list, so the focus would be tweaked as the coronavirus response unfolded.

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"But we always kept it really, really simple for people, so that they could absolutely see where we were trying to go, and then they could work out how they could support that priority, rather than me trying to tell them how they should support that work. That's a much better approach than trying to tell them how they should support you," he says.

"Your crisis management approach should be really clear to people in your team and how they can support you – and, if it's not, they can ask you. It's like the OODA loop approach to decision-making that the military uses: observe, orient, decide, and act. And then, once you've finished, go around that loop again."

3. Seek the expert advice of your C-suite peers

Jason Oliver, director of IT at the University of Sussex, says one of the key things he's learnt from the COVID crisis is the importance of a supportive community.

Oliver says CIOs around the UK passed their best-practice advice across the leadership network. He says one of the crucial elements for IT leaders was a crowdsourced remote-working survival toolkit, curated by CIO advisors Chris Weston and Dominic Mason.

"Loads of people contributed to that – CIOs from across the country. It's a fantastic document for anyone to pick up at the moment, to give them a little bit of insight into some of the best practices and some of the things that they could be doing to make their life easier," he says.

Oliver says this kind of joined-up thinking shows that crises are often best managed collectively: "All the top CIOs have actually come together to put in their own anecdotes and their own ideas around best practice. Chris and Dominic pulled all of that together, so that there is a useful guide now that anybody in our sector can pick up and it will help them."

4. Use the collaborative spirit you've engendered to galvanise teams

Hany Choueiri, chief data officer at Aldermore Bank, says that crises often bring out the best in organisations. He thinks back to his time as CDO of the Bank of England during the 2008 financial crisis and how everyone across the business pulled together. It's been a similar story this time – successful businesses create a feeling of togetherness.

"Suddenly the silos break down; suddenly everybody's working together. They're working towards this common vision, a common problem, and the crisis seems to create something of a common vision and a problem that needs to be solved by everyone collaboratively. Everybody finding pragmatic solutions; everybody helping everyone else out to achieve that mission," he says.

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Choueiri says it's heartening to see technology, compliance, risk and data functions work collaboratively and quickly to deliver solutions to business challenges. Perhaps the biggest lesson for executives is to try and find a way to create the feeling of togetherness when there isn't a crisis. Choueiri says business leaders should work to galvanise teams.

"It's about how you can create a competitor threat by saying, 'you know, if we don't do this right, if we don't challenge ourselves, innovate ourselves, others will do it to us, others will innovate, and others will disrupt us. If we don't disrupt ourselves, we will be disrupted. So what do you want – to disrupt or sit back and wait to be disrupted?'" he says.