COVID-19 = Issue + Crisis + Change

confluence of crises change

The COVID-19 pandemic is offering a world class lesson on how an issue turns into a crisis when not well managed and the crisis begets major change that in turn can fuel the crisis without a change management plan.

MBA students at University Canada West and I have lately been having a spirited discussion about the confluence of issues, crises, and change. First a few quick defintions:

Issues Management: Basically, it is early identification through evidence-based environmental-scanning of an external or internal issue that poses a direct and specific threat to an organization’s profitability, reputation, operations, and public/employee safety. Check out my fellow colleagues at the Issue Management Council for more (https://issuemanagement.org/learnmore/clarification-of-terms/).

Crisis Management: In short, a crisis is a sudden and significant threat to operations that can have negative consequences if not handled properly.  In crisis management, the threat is the potential damage a crisis can inflict on an organization, its stakeholders, the general public, and an industry including financial, public/employee safety, and reputation. Quick, factual, updated and clear communication is paramount. See more at https://instituteforpr.org/crisis-management-and-communications/.

Change management: A very brief highlight of my definition to our MBA Change Management class is “a structured, evidence-based and planned approach to implementing successful, measurable, and integrated change in response to both external and internal opportunities and threats facing an organization.

Now let me introduce you to the challenges and questions we face as we examine the interlocked nexus of issues, crises, and change.

Issues Management? Is COVID-19 an emerging issue that was long predicted? It is now presented in several scientific views that indeed it was. The most forceful view comes from Kent Harrington in the Jakarta Post, April 20, 2020 who writes in part that (https://www.thejakartapost.com/academia/2020/04/20/the-spies-who-predicted-covid-19.html):

“In foretelling the COVID-19 pandemic exactly, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper made clear that, ‘This is not a hypothetical threat.’ Trump received the same message in May 2017, when (former DNI Director) Coats highlighted a World Bank assessment predicting that a pandemic would cost the world around 5 percent of GDP.” 

Mr. Harrington, by the way, is a former senior CIA analyst, served as national intelligence officer for East Asia, chief of station in Asia, and the CIA’s Director of Public Affairs.

Crisis management? An issue that is not dealt with is what I call a “crisis wannabe.” So now we have COVID-19 the crisis. A crisis by its very nature brings fear, confusion, expectations, chaos and a very strong need for stability. A crisis changes behavior, either through force-of-penalties for non-compliance or just common sense. We are seeing that with self-isolation, social distancing, severe restrictions on travel, and many other protective measures. We are indeed changing behaviors. But are we changing our attitudes?

Change management? It can be argued that prolonged changes in behavior can lead to changes in attitudes that are usually well embedded through culture, experiences, upbringing, educations, gender, religion and other influentiual factors. But it is also apparent that some can change their behaviors for a while to adhere to penalty-linked directions but not change our attitudes. And after a while our behaviors revert to our attitudes.

In the U.S. in particular and now starting in Canada we are seeing revamped behaviors in the face of COVID-19 spring back to attitudes about government and medical experts “control” of our destiny, about what people strongly believe is their “right” to do what they want, and an ignoring of both mandated and common-sense behaviors linked to saving lives. We are seeing a new fear manifested through a new sense of powerless and unknown.

A crisis without a change management plan is a crisis that can easily ignite public fear, anger, and negative actions. But a change management plan that doesn’t connect to emotional needs and expectations can create a crisis. A crisis of confidence, trust, fear and confusion.

It appears that now a clearly defined, well-communicated, and evidence-based change management plan is especially need to calm the crisis created by an untamed issue. As one of my students said (or quoted) “we can always bring back the economy. But we can’t bring back lives.”