Perspectives

REFLECTIONS ON THE PRIME MINISTER'S LOCKDOWN PLAN

Last night, Boris Johnson announced a plan for the country to navigate out of lockdown. There is a feeling in across many branches of politics, mainstream news outlets and social media that the messaging is confused and uncertain.
Isn’t this to be expected though?
Last night, Boris Johnson announced a plan for the country to navigate out of lockdown. There is a feeling in across many branches of politics, mainstream news outlets and social media that the messaging is confused and uncertain.
Isn’t this to be expected though?

REFLECTIONS ON THE PRIME MINISTER'S LOCKDOWN PLAN

11 MAY 2020, Mok O’Keeffe

We are living through uncertainty. We are in disrupted times. In our Roadmap Through Uncertainty, we show that uncertainty is the driving emotion behind decisions and responses. There can be no certainty in the extreme crisis facing the world.

Leaders at every level in organisations should develop plans that are as accurate as they can be, but as malleable as an elastic band, so that they have both have a plan and are able to flex that plan to meet the needs of the moment.

That is what we saw the government set out last night, and we look forward to more later today when they outline the plan in more detail.

The Stockdale Paradox

As I outline in my recent white paper on Leading In Disrupted Times,

“you have to have faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever that might be”

This message comes from James Stockdale, former Vice President and Prisoner of War. It outlines what has become known as The Stockdale Paradox. It epitomises the challenge of leadership through uncertainty. Leaders need to inspire and motivate people through incredible uncertainty, whilst at the same time, being open and transparent about the negative state of the business.

We heard some of this duality of leadership in the Prime Minister’s message last night.

Another Paradox

The Stockdale Paradox is not the only challenge facing the Prime Minister and his team. The health and security of the nation is the highest priority of government. Health and security has many facets: physical health, mental wellbeing and economic security are amongst the most obvious aspects of national health and security after keeping peace and maintaining law and order.

When preserving physical health negatively impacts upon both mental wellbeing and economic security, as in the current crisis, governments are faced with another paradox: how can people stay mentally and economically safe whilst protecting their physical health?

This challenge is what the government is trying to address through it’s plan out of lockdown.

The OODA Loop

In the White Paper on Leading in Disrupted Times, I share a useful model for leadership decision making in the midst of crisis. The OODA Loop was used by fighter pilots in the Second World War to assess the situation and take action. Those pilots who used the OODA Loop were more effective and more likely to survive in battle. This four stage approach to decision making is:

  • Observe: What data is available? What has changed?
  • Orientate: What is happening? What unconscious bias might be informing my conclusions? Are my conclusions still valid?
  • Decide: Create a response based on a non-biased view of the data
  • Act: Implement your decision… and immediately loop back to Observe the impact of your action.

When I listened to the Prime Minister’s address last night, I felt the continual reference to the five tests, the insistence that we will only move to the next stage of the plan if the situation permits, and the focus on data driven decisions demonstrated the OODA Loop in action.

Leaders across industry, politics, education and civil society who adopt the OODA Loop to tackle the challenges and paradoxes of leadership through uncertainty will make better decisions. The key thing is that they must be prepared to pivot and flex those decisions in light of fresh data.

The Leader’s Challenge

The Stockdale Paradox shows us that we need to balance our messaging: reflect the facts, but have faith that we will prevail. As leaders we need to do this for our people. It is what the Prime Minister was trying to do in his message last night. The OODA Loop shows us that we need to make decisions that are data driven and able to flex when new data comes to light. This is the principle upon which the Government’s plan is built.

But this comes at a cost. That cost is continued uncertainty: for leaders and for those they lead. As a leader in your business, you should expect your decisions and your communication with your people in the coming days and weeks to bring clarity on some points and uncertainty on others. In times of crisis, that is the only way it can work. Opaque silence breeds total uncertainty. Transparency will not remove all uncertainty, but where you can bring clarity, hope and leadership it is your duty as a leader to do so.

For more on The Stockdale Paradox and the OODA Loop, download our White Paper on Leading Uncertain Times.

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