Managing Organisations During the Covid-19 Vortex, Edited by Wilhelm Crous

I am sure everyone in business in South Africa today feels a resonance with editor Wilhelm Crous’ sentiment: “We haven’t seen this movie before.”

To assist those charged with leading their organisations at this time, he has assembled in one book, 18 credible voices to weigh in on the subject.

While the topics have been touched on by many others in diverse settings, this one book – currently only available in electronic format – offers the reader a wide range of useful opinions.

This is the best one can expect at this time when there is difficulty finding reliable information about a multifaceted crisis that has unfolded with extraordinary speed.

The crisis had not been foreseen, even if it should have been, and it has severely disrupted most business’s ecological system of employees, customers, suppliers, supply chains, finances and more. Anyone who believes that they have an idea of what will come next, is not thoughtful and informed, but misguided and uninformed.

Tim Cohen, editor of Business Maverick, describes the core of the problem we all face as the “sheer number of unknown unknowns.”

In these circumstances, the best managers can do is gather as much quality information and opinion as possible that may, and is, impacting their organisations. Then they should digest it all and hope that the consequential decisions they will inevitably have to make, will be the right ones.

A very apt approach to how matters can be understood is the “butterfly effect.”

The thrust of this effect is that some events unfold in a non-linear fashion from very subtle events (a butterfly flapping its wings), so that we will almost never forecast the outcome correctly.

As such, we should not be surprised by the “terrible missteps, pointless over-reactions, deadly under-reactions, and if we are lucky, some prescient prevention techniques,” Cohen suggests.

Does South Africa hold any valuable cards that may spread some hope? At the macro-economic level, governments have, in past crises, used monetary policy to help the economy, such as lowering the cost of borrowing. This is not available to many countries as interest rates are already exceptionally low. This lever is still available to South Africa and is being used.

A more significant remedy lies in fiscal policies that stimulate the economy directly, of which South Africa has many available. Further, the country has the conduits to effect some of these policies. We currently distribute about R17 million every month, by way of social pension payments to 11 million people. There are also many policy changes that if made would stimulate the economy significantly.

Fiscal policy may well have a salutary effect on what another contributor, the Sanlam Chief Economist Arthur Kamp calls the “global economic sudden stop.”

Sonja Blignaut, using the Cynefin sense-making framework, suggests managers are probably in a state of confusion rather than chaos. “The danger is that we get stuck there, which may lead to a descent into chaos.”

She offers several practical suggestions. One is to “get off the dance floor and get a balcony view”, or if you have been on the balcony too long, to join the dance for a while to gain a ground level perspective. In these fast-changing times, we need continuous situational awareness.

And, if there ever was a time for drawing on best managerial practice, it is now. Practice humility, take the hard decision, address necessary endings, and more.

The upside of crisis and chaos is that it is, and has always been, the strongest stimulus of innovation because it creates urgent need. Crises are thick with resource-starvation, time pressure and perspective shifts. Currently we have all three in abundance.

Using a ‘futures thinking’ perspective, Dr Morné Mostert, of Stellenbosch University, provides a framework for “sense-making for decision-making.”

This approach is predicated on four principles: The future cannot be predicted. The seeds of multiple futures already exist in the present. Living in the present with several futures is complex, because the future will most certainly be shaped by many factors, each with varying levels of impact and significance. The future can, “to some degree, be designed based on the investigation of multiple futures,” which have the inevitable benefit of stimulating innovation.

Mostert cites possible futures using the ‘futures thinking’ technique. These futures include considerations of the degree of compliance by individuals and communities to health protocols and the government’s disaster policy. Also included is overall potential potency of the pathogen in terms of how transmissible and infectious it is, as well as how lethal it is, and so on.

In times like this, “senior executives should be spending about 20% of their intellectual energy on the past, 30% on the shifting developments of the present, and at least 50% of their intellectual energy on the future.” While this has always been the case, it was rarely so in practice. Now it is critical.

Busisiwe Mavuso, the CEO of   Business Leadership South  Africa (BLSA), focuses on how the coronavirus highlights the fractures in our democracy. This is evident from, among other frightening facts, that we have the highest level in the world of inequality among our citizens.

We need only look at two facts to highlight this looming catastrophe. The gap between private and public health systems is vast. This is exacerbated by many factors ranging from the brain drain to bad government policies. Additionally, only about 19% of the population have access to medical aid. Those without medical aid are dependent on a poorly performing public healthcare system.

Add to this the appalling and terrifying record unemployment rate in the country before the crisis, with youth unemployment at 55.2%. Once again, it will be the poorest and most vulnerable in our society who will bear the brunt of this crisis.

“As I write this, I cannot help but feel concerned about just what this disease will expose in our supposed journey to a country that is better for all who live in it. But as much as I am concerned, I hope we make use of this crisis to commit ourselves to the pursuit of economic justice. The state, business, labour and civil society all have to play a role in mending the wounds that will be inflicted on our country,” writes Mavuso.

Crous quotes Robert Quinn, who said that in situations of deep, volatile change you need the courage to “build the bridge as you walk on it”.

Indeed.

Readability            Light –+– Serious

Insights                 High +—- Low

Practical                High –+– Low

*Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on strategy and implementation, is the author of ‘Strategy that Works’ and a public speaker. Views expressed are his own.

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