In 'normal times' organisations face numerous uncertainties of varying consequence. Managers deal with challenges by relying on established structures and processes. These are designed to reduce uncertainty and support calculated bets to manage the residual risks. In a serious crisis, however, uncertainty can reach extreme levels, and the normal way of working becomes overstrained. At such times traditional management operating models rarely prove adequate, and organisations with inadequate processes can quickly find themselves facing existential threats.
The nagging doubt that leaders must face up to is that we have quickly fallen into an epoch in which 'normal times' or 'business as usual' only exist as anecdotal evidence of halcyon nostalgia for times now past. The dichotomy being that whilst productive transformation rests as much upon embedded continuity as it does change, too much of the former creates inertia and too much of the latter creates chaos.
Rational business models and planning cycles are far less likely to succeed on 'first contact with the enemy' (the novelty of extreme events) and lead the unsuspecting to chasing failed strategies. There is a need for rationality and plans - they give people the confidence to take action, but leaders need to carry them lightly and use the tools that are available to tune into the intuitive pulse of what is happening now in their organisations. Sensing through the intelligence of their people in real time the emergence of threats and opportunities. This is not a 'one (systems) or the other (intuition)' model; more it is advocacy for adroit realism that respects both, whilst refusing to become a 'hostage to fortune' to either.
Uncertainty can be measured in magnitude and duration. By both measures, the extreme uncertainty accompanying the public-health and economic damage created by the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in modern memory. It should not be surprising, therefore, that organizations need a new management model to sustain operations under such conditions. The magnitude of the uncertainty organizations face in this crisis—defined partly by the frequency and extent of changes in information about it—means that this operating model must enable continuous learning and flexible responses as situations evolve.