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Unleashing Human Adaptability During Crisis

The most powerful force we have right now in the battle against coronavirus is the human mind's ability to adapt.

Two weeks ago my parents told me a story of their professor at MIT who was a Holocaust survivor. Here is what he said:

Within 30 minutes of arriving at the concentration camps, we completely forgot everything about our past lives. We only focused on surviving here, now. Never underestimate the human mind's ability to adapt.

How do you harness such human adaptability for your organization in order to respond to the current coronavirus crisis? Three steps:

  1. Organize an intelligence network.

  2. Find and empower leaders who can adapt.

  3. Inspire from the deepest place you can find.

If you have already started these steps - fantastic. You can use this as a guide or checklist to shore up your efforts.

Quick note: if you are too stressed to read this entire article now, awesome that you can recognize that. It covers a lot of bases and is thorough. Set aside 10 minutes at some point today or tomorrow to go through it - speed matters. Alternatively, assign it to someone else to read and summarize for you.

Let's get started.

(1) Organize your intelligence network

There is no guarantee that those in existing leadership roles in your organization are the optimal people to respond to a novel crisis (as a practical matter they may not have the bandwidth to dedicate to it, either emotionally or time-wise). In that case, it may be optimal to build a new intelligence network for such a purpose.

Intelligence in an organization means adaptability. How do you create an organizational network that can employ adaptive intelligence? Some of it happens naturally.

See if you can recognize your organization in these steps. This is what we have been doing as a species for the past few weeks:

The most important thing to note here: organization is more important than enthusiasm.

Many people are rushing to help with coronavirus efforts out of a very deep-seated need to not feel helpless. In other words, part of their drive is to regain a sense of control. At an extreme, this desire to feel "in control" and "not helpless" will be more powerful than the drive to be productive or efficient. For example, people spending time talking about how "crazy things are" is not productive, but they may feel like they are helping "focus attention."

This can cause a lot of thrashing about and disorganization. Whomever your leaders are, they must recognize that every urge to help is not the same and that "enthusiastic panic" is a very real thing. Coordination and organization must be the top priority.

The two next most important considerations in building an intelligence network in this crisis are to:

  • Create highly "tactically flexible" teams who can re-organize after disruption (and such disruption will be coming)

  • Create teams with a high tolerance for failure and mistakes - the model here is Ready, Fire, Aim! (Ready is when you get organized)

Having provided these warnings / priorities, here are the first four steps of creating an intelligence network:

(a) Find your intelligence nodes

An intelligence node can be a person or a small group.

In other words, identify a new team. You must include people who are system thinkers.

Systems thinkers will not over-focus on what they know best. This over-focus is a real risk. For instance, I have seen many finance professionals insist that this "crisis" will be over in a few months, since "that's how financial panics work." In other words, they are clearly viewing this multidimensional crisis in strictly financial terms, since that is what they know best and where they feel most empowered. This is actually a tactical weakness. It means they are taking a very multi-disciplinary problem and viewing it from the frame of their personal superpower (financial markets). This is comforting on one level, but a dramatic oversimplification of the problem. You must have leaders who are comfortable with systems thinking. Narrowly focused experts may be great for consultation, but "to a hammer, everything looks like a nail," and nothing about coronavirus is nail-like. Please note, that this does not apply to predicting the course of the virus, that should be left to experts - this is about a business's organizational response. But a financial projection where 500k people die and no consideration is given to the fact that 25MM people would then have PTSD is narrow thinking.

(b) Connect your intelligence nodes

Get this team together, ASAP. Give them technology platforms to connect. Clear their schedules. Allow them to focus on a coronavirus response as part of their work - not as a side project or task force. Give them executive assistants and chiefs of staff - since attention to detail suffers in people who are dealing with chaos. Divide and conquer the process of getting organized.

I much prefer the Navy SEALs model of "Slow is smooth and smooth is fast" in crisis work. One place, however, where I agree with "Move fast and break things" model here is with regards to bureaucratic processes, like approvals. Get the most senior person you can to approve fast-track processes. Otherwise you will drown in red tape. For sure, there is someone in your organization with enough power to make this bureaucracy go away and they have to take your call. Don't wait on dumb processes.

(c) Organize your intelligence nodes into a network

Organize people into teams with roles and responsibilities. Very importantly, give them a budget and the discretion to spend it. Not sure how much? Consider what your prior financial forecasts were before the coronavirus crisis hit. Compare those projections to a worst case scenario. Then give them at least 2.5%-5% of that difference so that they can mobilize resources. In other words, if you were expecting $100MM in sales and now think you will have $20MM in sales, the difference is $80MM. If you can afford it, budget them with $2-4MM to come up with solutions. Additionally, reduce the bureaucracy for them to take action. Give them freedom. This is also called lowering their Cost of Creativity (more on that here).

(d) Start exchanging information in the intelligence network

Have them start sharing information. The first step is (a) agreeing on what the problem is. The second step is (b) agreeing on what their assets / resources are - including assets and resources (e.g. experts) that are in their extended network and not directly in the company. Some of the best assets may be available through the network of the CEO and/or C-Suite. Those folks must make their networks available and your coronavirus response team needs a direct link to the C-Suite and an ability to get time on their calendars. Response times should be under 48 hours for such C-Suite requests.

Everyone should be able to see what everyone else is working on. You should get a technology person to design a platform for this. Don't just rely on email. In a pinch, use Slack and Google docs, get a shared calendar, and set up groups on WhatsApp and let everyone have access to everything.

Stressed out people can't organize well, so make it someone's sole job to organize communications and push information out.

(2) Find and empower leaders who can adapt

This is not easy because it's not obvious what traits in leaders are good for pandemic adaptation.

My best guess of qualities of adaptive leaders in crisis:

  1. Are broad system thinkers, able to look at a problem from multiple frameworks.

  2. Don't get stuck trying to predict a single outcome, but create multiple plans for multiple scenarios.

  3. Can contemplate the worst case scenarios (e.g. losing staff, including themselves) and still make plans.

  4. Are willing and capable to talk to others without preparation (i.e., can improvise verbally, on the phone and in front of groups).

  5. Are not afraid to make mistakes (I would expect a 60% right / 40% wrong decision rate).

  6. Have extremely high mental flexibility (i.e., can be tactical now, versus strategic).

  7. Focus on facts versus outrage or drama.

  8. Do not want to talk about government politics (unless directly lobbying or some such).

  9. Are able to think in If-Then scenarios (e.g., "If this happens, Then we will...") - if there are scenarios they can't tolerate brainstorming about, then they may not be right for the role.

  10. Are more interested in being effective than in being right. They will listen to anyone with a good idea, but don't give airtime to fools.

  11. Have a deep sense of urgency.

  12. Are willing to spend 3-5 days first building an intelligence network because they understand the value of organization (they should keep building it afterwards also).

  13. Can be analytical in the face of fear or strong emotion.

  14. Are committed to clarity but not a slave of process (processes may need to change fast).

  15. Can tell you how they feel (i.e., they are not dissociating) and are deeply empathetic.

  16. Can put themselves in the shoes of Americans who are lower middle class or live in poverty, since this will affect all forecasting scenarios.

  17. Can imagine a scenario in which 25MM+ Americans may end up with PTSD or some form of trauma and have an adaptive plan for that.

Additionally, and anecdotally, some of the most capable leadership I'm seeing right now is from people who have survived and made a superpower out of relational trauma (traumas with a relationship component vs. physical trauma). In other words, people who are survivors. These folks are powerful because they can process enormous amounts of uncertainty while still anticipating problems and mobilizing solutions. They know how to function in the face of fear.

They have a tell-tale "Early Adopter" pattern:

  1. They see the problem *before* anyone else does, get a surge of productive anxiety, and start planning. They often can't stop themselves from this planning.

  2. Once they start to implement plans, their anxiety drops about 30-40%.

  3. Once everyone else sees the danger and their plans are implemented, their anxiety drops 80-90%.

After step 3, they will likely be calmer than anyone else.

Despite their stress, and through all of it, they remain highly functional. They are simply highly intense / emotional, especially at the first step.

These are not the same people as those who have had physical trauma or did not recover well from relational trauma. Those people may be really struggling with the coronavirus crisis.

As for these recovered relational trauma folks? These are the people who need to have a seat at the table in your organizational response. I'm finding them to have more mental resilience than even ex-military types.

Importantly, these people may not be the first people you are thinking of in terms of coronavirus leadership. They may not currently be in leadership positions. Either way, you want them on your team. Add them to the intelligence network when you find them.

When in doubt as to where to find them, perhaps the best test are those people who prepared their family for the pandemic very early on (bought food early and have all sorts of backup plans). Additionally, you can look at diversity candidates or anyone who historically has had to (i) generate personal safety (ii) in the face of societal oppression. These people know how to survive and how to think under tremendous fear. Obviously, they need to be volunteering for this. But the right ones will also want to find you. They may be in sitting on the sidelines and dying to jump in. This is only a subset of trauma survivors, but don't underestimate their value. Their minds have a unique form of flexibility.

(3) Inspire from the deepest place you can find.

There are two core principles to deep inspiration during crisis: (a) be honest about difficult things; (b) be authentic about how you are feeling.


Every organization has dark emotions - i.e., feelings of fear, doubt, worry, and frustration. In individuals, this dark side is what psychologists call the human shadow. When this is in an organization, I call it the organizational shadow. During the coronavirus crisis, the organizational shadow will be hugely impactful on organizational health.

If your leaders don’t talk to and make sense of your organizational shadow, your employees will be left to talk to that shadow themselves, uncoordinated, in their own ways. And, thus, the organizational shadow will only amplify their individual fears and doubts. With the case of coronavirus, it's very likely that this has already occurred.

How does one talk to these painful feelings? Can they be channeled productively?

The answer is yes.

The anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his book The Interpretation of Cultures, outlines 3 components of managing group emotion through difficulty:

  1. Defining the ideal,

  2. Creating a plan on how to manage suffering until you get there, and

  3. Defining your starting point, or the current reality.

When trying to rally the troops, most leaders focus on (1) the ideal, followed by (2) the plan on how to get there. This is what many call strategic planning, i.e.,. “Here is the vision and how we achieve it.”

But focusing on either of these two is actually the *weakest* intervention possible. Instead, the most powerful leaders focus on (3) redefining the current moment, because that is where the most immediate energy is.

In fact, the framework Geertz is describing is the cultural anthropology of how to build a religion. It’s been my experience that if you can honestly define the current moment then that is the most powerful leadership tool in existence. This is because everything we do follows from what we think the current moment is. And when you change the current moment in people’s minds? Then completely new solutions suddenly seem “obvious” and possible. This is how consciousness control is done. And this is never more needed than when the current moment is filled with uncertainty, doubt, fear, despair, resentment, and frustration - such as now.

To channel to these emotions powerfully, you can’t do it casually. You need to get down and dirty in the mud and misery of the current moment. That means being honest and authentic.

For step by step frameworks on how to inspire during crises, please see my articles on organizational shadow here and on how to speak persuasively here.

That's it. To recap:

  1. Organize an intelligence network.

  2. Find and empower leaders who can adapt.

  3. Inspire from the deepest place you can find.

If you can employ even 30% of the above in your organization, you are well on your way to creating an adaptive response in your organization.

Finally, for those leaders who are stuck in a Fight, Flight, or Freeze response, consider some of the following ways out:

Hopefully the above was useful to you in organizing your company to this crisis. If you would like help on practical implementations of any of the above, please feel free to reach out to me directly.


Also please note, this post was written quickly and under a lot of time pressure. I'm open to feedback if you think I've missed something.

Please feel free to share with leaders for whom you think it will make a difference.

I will leave you with this final thought in these times:

Don't be afraid to be stronger than you have ever been.

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