Three Tips for Coping When You’re Supposed to Lead

Three Tips for Coping When You're Supposed to Lead

We're several weeks into the COVID-19 crisis, and we still don't know much about the future. We have some data about the present. But the future? Nope.

You might have a title with “lead” or “manager.” And, you might not be sure about what to do next. I get nervous—how can I lead others if I don't know what to do? That's why I offered suggestions for how you cope in Part 1. I suggested how you might support others in Part 2. Now, consider these leadership possibilities.

Tip 1: Ask, “Should we do this now?”

You might feel overwhelmed with all the decisions and work you need to do now. Ask this question for every piece of work you're supposed to handle. Then, ask the same question for each team. Yes, ask this Zeroth question for every task, project, and decision in the organization. You'll discover you have work in these buckets:

  • Toss, because the world has changed.
  • Postpone because you think the work will become significant in the future.
  • Execute now and finish so you can do another experiment. (See We Won’t Return to Normal; We Will Discover Normal to see how to use experiments.)

As you assess the work, make sure you don't fall prey to the Sunk Cost Fallacy. It does not matter how much you already spent on this work. If you shouldn't do it now, stop that work. Depending on your business, you might offer people one day to wrap everything before they start on the next work. (You might not have a day to wrap.)

I suggested three ways to think about your work in This Is Not and Cannot Be “Business as Usual”:

  1. We don't have a valid business model for the foreseeable future.
  2. We don't have the right mix of products and services for this time.
  3. Our business model works, and we need to fix our infrastructure to prosper.

If you no longer have a valid business model or need a new mix of products and services, don't bother wrapping anything up. Engage everyone you can afford to continue to pay in problem-solving. Start with data.

Tip 2: Adapt Everything Based on Data

We can see how our various governments have planned and replanned to manage our response to COVID-19. As our governments acquire new data, they ask us to live differently. Our governments make decisions based on data.

We also need to decide based on data. Here's the kind of data I mean:

  • A management team's decision cycle time. (How long does it take you to make decisions?)
  • What customers want and need. (Your product and support people might have some initial data. You might need to observe or ask your current and potential customers. As you create short experiments, you will gather more data.)
  • What other companies offer as products and services (market data).

The decision cycle time will tell you the shortest time it will take for a team to create and run an experiment. (Management's cycle time plus one day.) You might need a little time to gather the other data and create a backlog of experiments.

Notice that I didn't discuss team cycle time or estimates. Or even a one-page brief for a project. You don't need that kind of data.

All of us need a clear definition of the next deliverable that will help us gather market data faster. That's because we need to deliver something fast and then reassess the rest of the plans. Delivering something fast provides us more data to replan.

If you're wondering, I mean execs, managers, and teams each need to create their next small deliverable. When the entire organization experiments, everyone learns more.

Tip 3: Experiment and Evaluate Often

Too often, a few people spend a ton of time planning for other people. Few of us can wait for a perfect—or even a pretty good—plan right now. We don't need an entire plan. We need to know what's the smallest next thing now, and when we want to evaluate our new data.

I wrote about some experiments in We Won’t Return to Normal; We Will Discover Normal.

I encourage you to ask for help from everyone to create and run experiments. If you frame your experiments well, you'll learn from each deliverable. You might not succeed, but you'll learn.

I don't know how long we will need to keep learning. I do know this: f we keep moving forward, one small deliverable at a time, we are more likely to succeed.

This three-part series about coping with this change:

I'm planning to organize a page on my site collecting all my blog posts and these newsletters. I'll link to that in the next newsletter.

I hope you enjoyed this series. Want me to write on another topic? Hit Reply, and we can talk.

Learn with Johanna

See Distributed Agile Success for all of my self-study classes with Mark Kilby based on our book, From Chaos to Successful Distributed Agile Teams: Collaborate to Deliver.

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Here are links you might find useful:

Till next time,


© 2020 Johanna Rothman

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