24 Mar 2020
The (virtual) situation room
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Here's how building a virtual situation room can help an organization respond to the COVID-19 crisis more effectively.
A crisis, almost by definition, changes a business’s footing faster than its structures are prepared to adapt. But to say that the outbreak and rapid proliferation of COVID-19, which has torn the rug out from under businesses in almost every sector in almost every country in the developed world, constitutes a management crisis is an understatement.
Business leaders everywhere are suddenly doing triage in companies that three weeks ago were posting strong earnings and trading at all-time highs. Many of these leaders are doing this from their home office, video conferencing with team leaders while their pent up kids are bouncing around in the adjacent living room. And by some estimates, this crisis—along with disruptions in retail, supply chain, consumer confidence, and employee and family health—may be an economic headwind for some time to come.
Here’s how to go about responding:
1. Build a (virtual) Situation Room
In 1961, after the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion, President Kennedy ordered the Situation Room built in the basement of the West Wing. It was a room designed to gather real-time information about various national and international crises and to serve as a think-tank in which the President, his advisors, and representatives of various military, intelligence, and civilian communities could monitor and respond to situations.
The concept closely resembles the war rooms from which militaries across the world oversee conflicts, and was modernized by General Stanley McChrystal in Iraq, where he built a decentralized but constantly communicating team of teams to meet the demands of the ever-evolving conflict. Kennedy’s room, renovated, expanded, and named for him, remains a hub for the executive branch’s crisis monitoring and management initiatives.
In responding to the coronavirus, businesses should imitate Kennedy’s situation by building a core, but highly-diverse team of specialists and decision-makers who can gather, process, and react to critical information in real time.
This will allow leaders to coordinate between functionally distant parts of the organization and leverage the creativity of the organization’s most talented members. This can be both virtual and in person.
2. Who’s in the Situation Room?
To steer your organization through the COVID-19 uncertainty and position it to thrive in the post-COVID era, leaders need to leverage the know-how and creativity of their organization’s best minds. This means expanding the Situation Room’s occupants beyond the traditional board and management team, making rooms for functional experts, innovators, and other employees whose perspectives can help management make fast, informed, and far-reaching decisions.
So who’s in your virtual Situation Room?
First and foremost, to no one’s surprise, it's your chief executive, executive team, and board. Their leadership skills, career experience, and institutional knowledge are crucial to the organization’s strategic and operational functioning. This is why they’re the traditional guardians of organizational policy. But as military leaders know, behind-the-lines decision-makers need to understand what conditions feel like on the ground in times of crisis. They need to know what seems feasible to the soldiers they expect to carry out their plans.
The Situation Room should also feature the leaders of each vertical, each of whom brings an accretive, functional expertise and ground-level awareness into the picture.
These team leaders, though they may lack the big picture context of senior management, know the importance of fast-paced adaptation, can feed the organization’s decision-makers critical insights about specific problems and ground-level realities, and thus assist management in making informed, flexible decisions.
The presence of multiple teams or divisions has the equally important benefit of helping each vertical coordinate their responses to the crisis. It’s important, for example, for the Head of Human Resources to have a good understanding of the financial imperatives driving the difficult HR decisions that they’re being asked to make.
Similarly, leaders in the supply chain, data, technology, communications, compliance, government affairs, and strategy can all contribute to each other’s crisis-management actions. They can provide advice to one another on topics as far-ranging as operational efficiency, work-from-home tips, the maintenance of employee morale, and how to have difficult conversations about crisis-specific compensation adjustments.
To use ourselves as an example, the heads of Odgers Berndtson’s technology, data, and marketing teams don’t typically participate in board-level strategic planning sessions, but they’re in our Situation Room right now, and they’ve been key players in designing and executing our Coronavirus response.
Lastly, the Situation Room should also include a certain number of people—the equivalent, perhaps, of presidential advisors—selected because they are, for lack of a better term, creative.
You want a certain number of innovators and younger employees, people whose connection-making abilities aren’t limited by experience. Prior to COVID-19, only our younger researchers used the Teams platform in their daily communication—now, thanks to their input, the whole company is using it. These people can help provide unusual perspectives and make creative combinations.
In a moment of crisis like this, when traditional structures are stressed to breaking, it doesn’t hurt to have a few iconoclasts in the room.
The exact composition of the Situation Room will vary by organization, but the following positions (or their equivalents) should be included:
- Board members—if not the whole board then the lead director
- Chief Executive Officer
- Chief Financial Officer
- Chief Human Resource Officer
- Chief Experience Officer
- Chief Strategy Officer / Chief Development Officer
- Chief Information Security Officer
- Chief Data Officer
- Chief Marketing Officer
- Chief Medical Officer
- Chief Government Affairs Officer
- Head of Supply Chain
- Head of IT
- Chief Communications Officer
- Chief Legal Officer
- Head of Sales
3. Fill the talent gaps
Any imbalance within an organization’s talent structure will be negatively highlighted by a crisis. Gaps in one of these functional areas, for example, need to be addressed immediately.
Your first step should be to find a workable solution within your existing team, a process that may entail promoting lower-level talent into a temporary leadership role or expanding the responsibilities of one of the other functional leaders.
Step two is to bring in new talent, especially a functional expert who also has a change-embracing, forward-thinking mindset.
Getting talent composition right will help you steer your organization through our current crisis while positioning it for success on the other side.
4. Establish a Rhythm
The key to a high-functioning Situation Room is communication and group involvement. To facilitate this, especially given that most participants lack physical proximity, it’s important to have some form of open and non-hierarchical system for communicating.
Regardless of the technology used, you should establish a remote “space” in which your team can update each other about their progress, share concerns and pressing news, and bounce ideas off each other in real-time — just like they would if they worked side by side in an office.
This constant dialogue should be augmented by more formal everyday communication.
At Odgers Berndtson, for example, members of the Situation Room talk each evening, either by video chat or conference call.
Sometimes these conversations have a significant strategic component, but more often than not they’re simply opportunities for the group to re-center itself, process the day, confirm plans for tomorrow, and reaffirm the firm’s ability to get through COVID-19.
Conclusion: Take a leadership role
At the moment, there is a dearth of knowledge and responsibility about how to effectively combat the virus. False and misleading news is competing with, and in places out-competing it, recommendations from doctors, health organizations, and governments.
Companies can step into this gap by offering advisory services to their own employees, clients, customers, and stakeholders.
By operating with transparency, by facilitating healthcare and sick leave for employees, by gathering and distributing reputable data about the virus, and by working to ensure that their employees stay healthy, happy, and productive in this isolating time, companies can accrue significant reputational advantages in the post-COVID era.
Contributors from Odgers Berndtson US: