Accelerate out of the COVID Curve: Four Ways Leaders Can Set Their Team Up to Win

By Christopher Fussell, David Livingston & Pavlina Plasilova

From their earliest days in the Special Operations Community, a future operator learns a simple mantra: slow is smooth, smooth is fast.  It may seem paradoxical, but the message sinks in through exposing new team members to increasingly stressful situations in training, or ultimately, on the battlefield. Chaotic situations and crises create a reaction in all of us to move quickly and react instinctively. That fight or flight reality is good if you’re getting chased by a bear, but not when you need to execute a complex operation with your teammates.  Learning, through exposure, to slow your breath, calm your breathing, and move at a very deliberate speed when facing a crisis ultimately prevents countless missteps along the way – and improves the overall speed and effectiveness of a team or larger organization.

The whole world has gone through two years of crisis exposure, and as the world began to reopen, the Omicron variant emerged. We now enter a phase where leaders are pushing their teams to take rapid action. While a bias for action can be a competitive advantage, you will be the first to act and the last to succeed if you are unfocused and uncoordinated.

McChrystal Group’s research from over 50,000 individuals across hundreds of cross-industry teams has revealed that only 33% of respondents, ranging from the C-suite to frontline contributors, agreed that decisions across their organizations were made in time for effective execution. Organizations that are slow to make decisions are 17% less likely to adapt their strategy to changes in their environment.

Below are four ways that leaders should leverage the Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast principle to accelerate out of the Covid curve and seize the advantage.

Re-orient on the Purpose:

When the environment speeds up, teams are quickly distracted by immediate threats and opportunities – and their efforts become disjointed. We have found that goal alignment tends to further erode with each successive layer of the organization. You need everyone rowing in the same direction toward a common purpose that aligns resources and energizes the team. Take the time now to refocus the team, considering: what are we trying to achieve, why are we doing it, and how will we achieve it? As Graham Kenney writes in the Harvard Business Review, a team’s purpose has an outward orientation – what are we doing for someone else – and that makes it more impactful. But, if you can’t clearly and concretely articulate that purpose in a sentence or two, your team will inevitably struggle.

DO THIS: During your next team meeting, take five minutes and instruct the team to write down their response to the what/why/how questions in 20 words or less. Compare their answers to yours. If they are similar, you know the team is properly focused on the purpose, and if not, you know you have some work to do to get everyone on the same page.

Prioritize Ruthlessly:

Resources are always limited, time is always in short supply, and there are always competing priorities. When looking at financial sector companies, we found that the most essential variable concerning future growth is whether teams can balance both long- and short-term priorities. In his famous book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey popularized the Urgent-Important Matrix, modeled after President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s saying, “what’s important is seldom urgent and what’s urgent is seldom important.” If priorities are undefined, each team member will tend to focus on the urgent and take action that makes sense in their own context but may be detrimental to the team’s ultimate long-term mission.

DO THIS: Do the “100 Pennies Reflection.” To conduct this five-minute mental exercise, start by jotting down a list of the top five to seven priorities for your team. Then look at the list and allocate 100 imaginary pennies across the list of priorities based on criticality to achieve your mission. If any priority has fewer than 25 pennies, delay or delete that priority, and then shift the time and resources dedicated to that initiative to a more important priority.

Identify Leading Indicators:

Identifying key metrics takes time, and dedicating time to collect meaningful data takes even more. When the environment speeds up, it is tempting to act based on hunches and retroactively decide if the action was successful. That builds deep subjective bias into your strategy and inhibits leaders from course correcting along the way.

DO THIS: Start by identifying the specific initiatives to deliver your mission. Then identify two to three metrics (quantitative or qualitative) for each initiative that will indicate if the initiative is producing the outcomes you need to achieve your mission. Then set a regular cadence to review those metrics and make course corrections as needed.

Proactively Set Guardrails:

Slow decision-making doesn’t just create tactical roadblocks; it presents a significant strategic challenge for many organizations. Organizations that are slow to make decisions are 17% less likely to adapt their strategy to changes in their environment. In a fast-moving, virtual world, your team must make rapid decisions with limited context. This risk increases the opportunity for redundant efforts, counter-productive actions, and even catastrophic failure.

The solution to this risk is not to centralize all decisions – that will produce bottlenecks, reduce innovation, and crush your team’s engagement. Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhard have popularized the tactic of proactively setting simple rules to guide action and establish clear boundaries that give your team the freedom to act within acceptable guardrails.

DO THIS: Codify a handful of simple rules for your team that are actionable, memorable, and understandable. They need to provide clear guidance on appropriate actions in a particular situation. They need to be short enough that they can be remembered, especially when stress levels are high and time is short. Finally, they need to be articulated clearly such that there is no room for confusion or misinterpretation.

Being the first to act does not guarantee you will beat the competition. Set a firm foundation that will focus your energy so that when you do act, it is with purpose and discipline. That will whiplash you past those competitors who acted first and are now floundering to find direction.

Chris Fussell is the President of McChrystal Group. Chris has focused on bringing his Special Operations experience and expertise in cross-functional collaboration, knowledge sharing, and decision making with large corporations facing similar challenges. He joined McChrystal Group as a Partner in 2012.

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David Livingston

Managing Partner, McChrystal Academy

David Livingston leads a team of subject matter experts, learning designers, and dynamic facilitators who develop and deliver custom learning courses and programs that leverage a variety of experiential learning methods to drive individual growth and higher performance for teams and organizations.

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Pavlina Plasilova

Chief of Staff, Team Science

Pavlina Plasilova is a Principal at McChrystal Group and Chief of Staff to Team Science. In her role, Pavlina supports Victor Bilgen, the Head of Team Science, in growing this part of our business. Additionally, Pavlina leads a leadership development academy for executives of a Fortune 500 financial services client.

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