5 Leadership Strategies for Better Adapting in a Crisis

As the economy gradually emerges from the COVID-19 crisis, organizations should spend some time contemplating how they can prepare for the next crisis, says management professor and futurist Oliver Schlake at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.

He shared future-proof tips in an innovation workshop, as part of a recent Maryland Smith Center for Global Business’ Maryland Business Adapts event. The event celebrated five Maryland-based global companies for their resilience and innovation in weathering the challenges of the pandemic.

“We have the tendency to forget challenging or bad experiences quickly. It is human nature to not be overcome with grief or dread. On the flip side of that tendency is that we often forget to learn from those events,” said Schlake. “I do believe there is benefit in recognizing organizations and individuals who persevered and also made sure others did not feel the full impact by learning with skill and example.”

During his 30-minute session (“Industry 4.0: Is Your Company Ready” at 1:35:00 of Maryland Business Adapts), Schlake noted the importance of adaptation and how it manifested during the pandemic, including through online learning, fashion, telecommunication and delivery services.

But what the pandemic also highlighted, Schlake said, is how precious of a resource time is during a crisis.

“Time to react, time to plan, time to execute and time to come to grips with a rapidly evolving situation. The goal to create a supply of “time” by forecasting, pre-planning or rehearsing different scenarios,” said Schlake. “This is time spent out of duress so you can use it when the crisis hits.”

The five companies honored during the event thrived by adapting, Schlake said, listing five tips that can be learned from their experience:

  1. Rebuild and rethink: “It’s crucial to rebuild the pre-pandemic economy as fast as possible. Repairing what was broken is a normal reaction during a crisis, including both emotional and economic recovery,” said Schlake. “The challenge here is that the pandemic highlighted flaws in business models. An honest, holistic assessment is needed about the sustainability of business models and markets. Will your business be resilient enough to rebuild?”
  2. Plan A and Plan B: “Many companies were able to change their well-established plans, but the pandemic showcased the need to build a Plan B before it is needed,” said Schlake. “We can’t foresee everything, but the benefit of a Plan B is in the planning itself. You learn what resources you have, and you gain the peace of mind of having something to rely on in case things go south.”
  3. Resilience and redundancies: “Recovering from difficulties and showing resolve is an admirable trait, but it’s a trait with a fast-approaching expiration date,” said Schlake. “It is often forced by pushing for efficiency and leaner organizations. However, redundancy is needed when it comes to having fallback options.”
  4. Know your limits: “Businesses were able to create effective protocols after getting a better understanding of their situation during the pandemic. Businesses changed routines when forced to, which required energy, time, sacrifices and learning,” said Schlake. “But building protocols for every eventuality has its limits, and it’s up to businesses to know when to draw the line.”
  5. Show gratitude where it’s needed: “Many unsung heroes emerged over the last year, and celebrations are in order. In those cases, executive presence is necessary to help boost morale and show empathy,” said Schlake. “We must expand our ‘hero’ definition to include those who help prevent a future crisis; it can help deliver crucial reaction time later on.”

Schlake’s publications and research on scenario-based strategic planning and innovation strategy have been featured in leading academic and practitioner journals. He also has been an international management consultant and strategic advisor for leading companies and government agencies in Europe and North America.