The Covid-19 crisis is a shape-shifter

One job of a leader in a long crisis like the pandemic is to explain what’s going on – offer a frame, a narrative about what is happening and how we can deal with it. The first challenge, you discover, is that that means explaining things to yourself.

Just when you think you have the measure of the crisis – the nature of its threats to the business, your sanity, you’re health and your family – it changes into something else.

The FT has started a monthly series called Leaders’ Lessons, asking a “global panel” of CEOs about their experience of the pandemic. This week’s question was about making mistakes:

With the exception of perhaps one, the respondents offer candid and helpful admissions of error and how they have adapted since. One quote has stuck with me from Jaelle Ang, CEO of a co-working space in Singapore, who said that she focused on the wrong things at first:

Months on, it struck me that this [crisis] is a shape-shifting, forward and backward, infinite round of games. We may or may not know when the whistle blows. Focusing on cash flow is like focusing only on the scoreboard — and not on each pass or each play.

I know exactly what she means. Cash flow isn’t unimportant – the only inviolable rule of business is do not run out of cash – but it was only one of the games we would have to play over the coming months. Those first two sentences distil the crisis perfectly – I’ll break them down a little here:

  • Shape-shifting: A year ago, with the Cheltenham Festival just finished and Boris was shaking hands in Covid wards the discussion was – seriously – whether business would be affected at all. Then, it was about whether the recovery would be v-shape or u-shaped. The lockdown – three weeks or three months? Then panic set in. Things were delayed. The world changed. It was not a crisis, but a series of challenges and mini-crises that we faced – how and if to use furlough and loans, how to forecast, how to keep projects going that would have been happening in other countries.
  • Forward & backward: Q4 last year seemed like a recovery. Revenue lifted and bookings returned, we finished the year in high spirits at Brilliant Noise. Intact, proud of the work we were doing, proud of the resilience of our colleagues. While we craved to see one another and work around real tables and real whiteboards, we’d got really good at remote work. In some ways, our skills had got better and the cost of delivery, especially for international work, had lowered. But Q1 has been a sharp reverse. Literally hours into the first workday of the New Year it was clear the Government would be locking down the country again and that the disease was getting much, much worse. Our plans, once again, had to be completely changed.
  • Infinite round of games: The idea of games is perfect. Business can often be a hard game – “This isn’t checkers, this is m*******n’ chess”, as Ben Horowitz says in The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Business in the pandemic, though, isn’t a game of chess. It’s a long series of games of chess, in different formats – now speed chess, now timed, now against three opponents, now a single game over a week – and you never know which type of game, or games, you will be playing next.
  • We may not know when the whistle blows: Where the game metaphor breaks down is that games usually have a defined endpoint. While we may have “Freedom Day” provisionally booked in for the 21st of June in the UK, for instance, things aren’t going to be magically easier for most businesses the following Monday. Even with government support, many have had to dig deep into personal and corporate reserves of energy, cash and goodwill to get through to now. Many will face insolvency once things get back to “normal”. The after-effects of Covid-19’s worst phase will last for years, and even then we will be facing new challenges. We’ll raise a glass if we get to end lockdown fully, no doubt, but it won’t be the end of anything as much as the beginning of the new game.

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