Outside my window, the snow is heavily streaming down as New England is being buried in a blizzard. In the hype of media coverage about the approaching big storm, emergency response officials talked about their efforts to be prepared for whatever would come. This got me thinking about how leaders in any type of work can prepare themselves for the unexpected. All kinds of plans and strategies can be developed; however, when the unexpected hits, what are the capacities that enable people, teams, organizations and communities to respond effectively?
Capacities that Enable Effective Response
When Tropical Storm Irene created massive flooding and devastation in Vermont, some towns were cut off as rivers washed out roads into the towns on both sides. National Guard troops were brought in from around the country to help with the response. In a speech a few months after the storm, Vermont’s Governor Shumlin shared a story of talking with a National Guard member from Virginia about his experience. He said he had participated in storm responses all over the country and typically when they arrived at a devastated community, people were desperately waiting for help to arrive. In Vermont, when he arrived at a small town that had been isolated, the first person they saw, to their surprise, offered them a hot meal. The town residents had self-organized: cooking food that local restaurants had in stock, finding who needed help, and using bikes to get around over devastated roads.
Part of what enabled that level of local self-organizing in response to the unexpected was the scale – a town with a smaller population enables people to know each other and know who has what skills and resources. Those established relationships enable a higher level of collaboration.
How can we re-create that scale of connection in other aspects of our work and society? Creating networks of people and organizations that collaborate is one way to achieve that workable scale that enables people to self-organize and have greater responsiveness when unexpected changes arise. Jonathan Dawson in this insightful essay in the Guardian writes about the emergence of new dispersed enterprise and organizational forms: “Enabled by the growing power of information technology, whole new ways of doing business and organizing society are emerging, whose strength lies not in economies of scale but in economies of co-operation and symbiosis.”
As we work with clients to create these new organizational networked forms, the following are some of the capacities that enable people to respond effectively when the unforeseen arises:
- Understand who can offer what – Important work in building a network that can collaborate is inventorying skills, services, and resources of the members. Offering ways to share and communicate this “sense of the whole and the parts” allows people to find and connect to those who can be helpful and see how they can contribute.
- Clarity of purpose – When the unexpected arises, leaders need to have a clear sense of what they are good at and what they can do best in response. Questions to consider are: What can we uniquely offer? What makes sense for us to take on? For example, in Vermont after Hurricane Irene, the VT Charitable Foundation recognized it’s most helpful role was creating several funds for people to donate to and a process to disperse funds. VT Public Radio took its expertise in fundraising to help raise funds for the response.
- Network of trusting relationships – As we wrote in this blog about Building Trust Before a Crisis, when trusting relationships are well established, it enables a greater level of creative response and cooperation when unexpected events arise. The mantra of networked work quoted from Jeff Jarvis can be a guide: “do what you do best and link to the rest.” Questions to consider are: Who can we partner with? What can we do together that we can’t do alone?
- Adaptive thinking – As leaders, we can strengthen our ability to operate amidst uncertainty, assess changing conditions and develop a course of action. Here is where the skill in asking strategic questions can be valuable – these questions are those that we do not know the answer to, they guide us into new territory and inspire creative thinking. A leader framing strategic questions can help a team or network reflect on the new situation and make decisions, such as: What are the implications of this change in our situation? What is now possible? How can we respond in a way that advances our overall mission?