In his 1989 best seller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey wrote that effective people practice the habit of "putting first things first." By this, Covey meant that highly effective people focus most of their attention on things that are truly important.
Covey used a 2 x 2 matrix to illustrate that we spend our time and energy in one of four ways. Below is my version of Covey's diagram.
In this matrix, Quadrant I contains tasks, issues, and problems that are both urgent and important, while Quadrant II includes things that are important but not urgent. Quadrant III issues are urgent but not important, and Quadrant IV issues are neither important nor urgent.
Covey argued that most of us tend to spend most of our time in Quadrant I, while highly effective people find ways to give more of their attention to issues that are important but not urgent (Quadrant II). Highly effective people also stay away from Quadrants III and IV as much as possible because, urgent or not, these issues aren't important.
When a major crisis erupts, the number of issues in Quadrant I increases quickly and drastically. Issues or problems that were not particularly urgent or important a week or a month earlier suddenly demand immediate attention. Many of these issues feel like they are critical to survival, and some of them can be. Under these circumstances, most of us would be spending most - if not essentially all - of our time dealing with the urgent and important issues in Quadrant I.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a health and economic crisis of immense proportions, and business leaders bear the responsibility for leading their company through the crisis. Most leaders are responding to COVID-19 by focusing most of their time and attention on the urgent and important issues that are critical for business continuity. But it's vitally important for senior leaders - including senior marketing leaders - to begin looking to the future as quickly as possible.
Anticipating the future and making appropriate plans is the particular responsibility of senior leaders. One of the best expressions of this truth can be found in Into the Storm by Tom Clancy and General Fred Franks, Jr. (Ret.). General Franks was the commander of the U.S. Army's VII Corp during Operation Desert Storm. Clancy and General Franks wrote:
"One of the greatest skills of senior commanders is the ability to forecast. The more senior you are, the farther into the future you have to force yourself to look. You must be able to see beyond what others see. You must be involved in the present to know what is going on, but you must also discipline yourself to leave those actions for your subordinates to handle while you forecast the next battle, and the one after that."
During the initial stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, everyone in a company from the CEO down was working intensely on those issues that were both extremely urgent and critically important. That focus was entirely appropriate, first because immediate actions may have been necessary to keep the company functioning, and second because there was simply no visibility about how the outbreak would progress, which made it impossible to plan for the future.
There are still many unknowns about how the COVID-19 epidemic will evolve, but we know more today than we knew a month ago, and we should know much more a month from now than we know today. For example, as I am writing this on April 4th, there appears to be an emerging view among infectious disease professionals that the overall national peak of demand on hospital resources (beds, ICU beds, ventilators, etc.) in the U.S. will be reached sometime this month. If this projection turns out to be reasonably accurate, it's likely that we will begin to hear discussions in May about "reopening" the U.S. economy.
The key for senior leaders is to be prepared to respond quickly when business conditions begin to change. The most effective way to achieve this level of readiness is to be thinking in advance about how conditions may change and developing preliminary plans for each of those possibilities. In management circles, this is known formally as "scenario planning," and it becomes vitally important when senior leaders are working through a crisis.
So, senior leaders have two critical tasks to perform to respond effectively to COVID-19:
- First, they must develop and implement the actions that are necessary in the very short term to ensure business continuity.
- And second, as quickly as possible, they must transfer the management of the "very short-term plan" to others so that the senior leadership team can begin planning for the business conditions that may exist in the relatively near future.
Senior marketing leaders should play a major role in scenario planning, and I'll have more to say about that in a future post.
Top image courtesy of Naval Surface Warriors via Flickr CC.