Turning Crisis into Opportunity: The Leadership Challenge

June 11, 2020

The question of how to manage in a time of crisis, and specifically during the COVID-19 pandemic, requires an analysis of the roots of the crisis.

With the Big Bang time and space started and the universe became one big web of sub-systems that have to collaborate horizontally and vertically for the total system to operate.

With time there is change and since time cannot be stopped, change cannot be stopped either. And what happens as a result of change? Sub-systems do not change at the same speed. Let us analyze a company as an example.

A company consists of multiple sub-systems. Marketing, sales, production, finances, information technologies, human resources. They do not change synchronically. Some change faster than others. Marketing tends to change faster than the other subsystems. Changing sales takes more effort; You have to train the sales force, produce new materials, convince the clients. And how long does it take to change operations and production? Much longer. And how about accounting?  As for human resources, we are talking about culture, attitudes, people's behavior, knowledge, competences. You need even more time to implement change.

What are the implications? As the sub-systems do not change synchronously, the result is disintegration manifested by what we call ‘problems”.

All problems are manifestations of disintegration. Something is falling apart. Look at a car. Different parts of the car have a different lifespan. Some parts work longer than others. As a result of that, an old car falls apart.  It is the same with the human body. Different organs age at different speeds. You can accelerate this aging or slow it down by choosing what you eat and drink. Nevertheless, they change at different speeds.

Look at any problem that you have, with your company, your marriage, your car, or the broken faucet in your kitchen, and in order to analyze it ask yourself what has changed? What has fallen apart? What has disintegrated? That is your analysis.

Now, if all problems stem from change that causes disintegration, what is the solution? One solution is to try and stop change so that it does not create problems? That is the preferred solution of some political parties or some fanatic religions. Can anyone stop change? Can anyone stop the impact of time. No one can stop change because no one can stop time universally. You can try. You can sit in a cave in the Himalayas and meditate all day long. But even then, change will continue, and your body will age. You can stop your company from changing but your country will move on. You can try to stop the whole country from changing but you cannot stop the world.

There is a new phenomenon occurring in modern time unprecedented in the history of mankind. Change is accelerating, as result disintegration is accelerating, and problems are facing us faster than ever before.

Our grandparents were poorer than we are. But they were happier. There was less stress in their lives. The standard of living has improved because of change but at the same time the quality of lives has deteriorated. The fastest growing mental disease of modern time is depression. And look at the rate of divorce. The faster the development of a country, the more divorces, rapes, crime per capita.

And what happens if we do not integrate? Change continues and as change continues, so does disintegration until the problems become a crisis. To me, a crisis is the result of untreated or untimely treated disintegration.

So, what should we do? If all problems stem from disintegration, the solution has to be integration. The vaccine alone is a temporary solution. It is a band aid. If we do not act on integration a new COVID-19 will haunt us, and soon.

COVID-19 is a global problem. Therefore, it requires a global solution. More than ever before, the world is becoming one. In California, we have millions of acreages on fire. The smoke went to New York and is now over Sweden. Air knows no boundaries. We, humans, make boundaries. We draw borders. Air is not aware of them. Neither is water, nor does COVID-19.

Disintegration happens by itself because of change.  Since disintegration is ongoing, integration should be ongoing too. It is not a one-shot deal, like a single seminar on integration. It should be on going like losing weight should not be a diet but a lifestyle. You need continuous integration. You have to maintain it consistently.

The higher the rate of change, the higher the importance of the integrator for the success of the company.  The higher the rate of change, the faster and the deeper we fall apart and the faster a problem becomes a crisis. Hence the importance of the integrator who brings us together.

To solve the problem successfully, we have to start thinking as one, not as many.  And not only within us as humans. We share Planet Earth with animals with vegetation, with air and water. We exploit other subsystems and cause disintegration. And suffer the consequences.

COVID-19 is an opportunity for you to reintegrate your company. At other times, you were busy fighting fires. You had to take care of your clients and your market. You had to deal with financial problems. Now, the market is hibernating. You have  time  to fix what is broken in your company.  This is the time to get your top management together and say, "All right, what are our problems? What should we do to fix the company so that when COVID is over we are stronger than we were before the crisis?

How to integrate your company? I found that for integration it takes a culture of mutual trust and respect.  Do not let the COVID-19 destroy that. Do not let the COVID-19 destroy your company or your country.

How do you build and nurture mutual trust and respect? You need a common mission and shared values. You need an organizational structure where people do not step on each other's toes. You need a disciplined decision-making process; You need to collaborate rather than judge each other. You have to trust and respect the people that you work with.

Instead of reintegrating, some companies are doing just the opposite. An example of this is a company that to “solve” the crisis fires 30 percent of the labor force as a remedy. It looks good on paper. What is this analogous to? You get on a scale and you see that you are 15 kilos overweight. What is your solution? Cut one leg off. You look at the scale and your weight is optimal. So, you must be very healthy since the numbers look good.  That is what some consulting firms advise by the way. They will tell you to cut expenses across the board.  But you may not be cutting just fat. You may be cutting muscle. As a result, the numbers may look good but the company is agonizing. It is coming out of the COVID-19 crisis weaker than it was before. Your people are scared and upset, and the company culture has gone to hell.

So, what should you do? If you want to lose weight, you have to lose weight from the whole body, not from just one part.   Why not share jobs? Some people can work three days, whereas other people work the other three days of the week. In that way, we all suffer. We all take a salary cut. All of us. And the president takes the biggest salary cut, whereas the secretary takes the smallest.  So, we all suffer together. Integrate, do not disintegrate. Whenever you have a problem, think about reintegration.

In dealing with COVID-19 are you enhancing mutual trust and respect or destroying it? Not only inside the company but also outside, with your suppliers, clients, and community. Are you respecting the environment or destroying it. MT&R is the driving force. That is how you should be managing all the time, especially in a time of crisis.

  1. Edited presentation made to the Presidents Forum at IEDC, Bled School of Management, Slovenia, October 9, 2020
  1. Founder, Managing Director, Adizes Institute, Santa Barbara, California  
  2. Ichak Adizes: Mastering Change (Santa Barbara Cal: Adizes Institute Publications)

Written by
Dr. Ichak Adizes