Business leaders around the world have been forced to adjust their priorities in countless ways, and in some cases completely re-invent how they work, to deal with the many impacts brought on by the COVID pandemic.

Perhaps the most frustrating, time-consuming, and worrisome outcome of these changes, is that many executive leaders now find themselves (as they put it) “deep in the weeds”.

One of our CEO clients recently related the following frustration: “I find myself in meetings talking about things using acronyms I don’t even know, and at the same time thinking “why am I even here?”. Another executive leader said to me: “Forget about next year… I’m more concerned with next month! We need to fix our processes to address the new pandemic reality right now, and that means I can’t take the time to focus on long term work.”

These laments are entirely understandable.

In fact, adjusting the focus to the short term “here-and-now” issues of the business reflects a reasonable, sensible, and responsible answer to a crisis. COVID lockdowns created what for many, was an existential threat to the business. It’s understandable (and arguably, necessary) that the attention of the executive leadership team and every manager in the business turns to “what are we doing this day, this week, this month, to survive and adapt?”

These conditions – where executive leaders, managers, and the people they manage are all focused on work and outcomes that create the same types of short terms outputs – is what we refer to as compression.

Let me explain.

Picture an organization where front line service delivery workers (level one) are focused on day-to-day transactions that delight customers. Customer service managers are managing their teams; those teams are connected with sales and marketing and product management teams that are also seeking to provide the best possible product and service experience.

Above those teams, senior executives are steering the corporation towards achieving broader, longer term strategic objectives. Vice Presidents are looking after how things are evolving year over year, SVPs are looking out over the broader strategic horizon, and the CEO (working at level five) is ensuring that the entire organization is working to deliver on the longer term strategic objectives.

This is how we might also envision an organization that is properly structured to deliver on its strategic objectives. Clearly defined roles at each level doing the work required to bring the strategy to life.

Enter COVID.

The pandemic created an environment where virtually everyone – from the CEO, through the executive leadership, to the front line – focused on figuring out what tomorrow, or next week, or next month, looked like for their business. COVID created an “all hands on deck” situation and shifted the focus of the organization, almost entirely, to short-term sustainability and adapting to the “new normal”.

Virtually every role in the organization became focused, understandably, on keeping the business afloat and satisfying customers. Short term work prevailed.

Like any response to a calamity however, crisis-inspired organizational compression is not sustainable in the long term.

In a prolonged crisis, front line service providers and their leaders burn out; the temporary “we’ll all pitch in” structure deteriorates over time.

Front line service workers begin to feel over-supervised and micro-managed. They begin to wonder if there will ever be a return to the “before time” when they could just do their jobs without several layers of managers “participating” in day-to-day activities and decisions.

Executive leaders begin to chafe at focusing on short term tasks which, while they are important, are no longer critical and likely no longer require executive-level oversight. They realize that “short-term-ism” is distracting them from the long-term work they are accountable for (and which is more their natural inclination). And increasingly, they realize their longer-term accountabilities have been sorely neglected. They find themselves working at level one and worrying at level five.

Eventually every crisis situation evolves towards easing of some nature. Naturally, this tipping point will be different for every business, but you may see the signs emerging as your organization discovers that the approach that served so well in response to the original crisis begins to create friction.

The pressing question for many business leaders now is: “How do I get out of this?”

Here are some suggestions for de-compressing your organization.

  1. Check your strategy. In some cases, how you approach your market and customers may have changed due to COVID. If you have (either by design or default) experienced a change in strategic direction, have you taken the time to realign your organization to your new strategy? Is your new strategy explicitly stated, or have you simply “drifted into” it? Either one is OK – business leaders will do what they need to so that they can stay afloat – but a consciously articulated strategy, together with an organization that is aligned to it, is a recipe for success.
  2. Conduct a review of how the work of the organization is distributed. Who’s doing what? And why? Is the work distributed appropriately? Is the right work being done by the right role at the right level? You may find that there are some practices that you want to retain. Perhaps some work has shifted lower down in the organization and can stay there. On the other hand, perhaps some senior leaders are engaging in work that does not align with their longer term accountabilities.
  3. Think deeply about how and where you add value. If you’re sitting in a meeting that is deeply technical in a field you’re unfamiliar with, and you find yourself asking for explanations of the acronyms or technical language, you might want to consider whether you can add value to the proceedings. In all likelihood, you cannot. Ask yourself “Does my being here make for more productive or strategically relevant outcomes?” If the answer is no (perhaps you’re just curious or attending out of habit!) then why are you there? As one thoughtful leader reflected to us “I’m going to have to stop going to those meetings, aren’t I?”
  4. Assess Risk. There are two risks in particular: 1) the risk inherent in ignoring or putting off long term value-add work, and; 2) the risks addressed in the meetings you’re now attending. When COVID hit many organizations set up weekly (or daily) meetings to address pandemic-related risks. For many organizations, these meetings have taken on a life of their own. Ask yourself whether the risk that’s being discussed in the meeting you’re in outweighs the risk of putting off your longer-term work. If it is, stay. If it isn’t, ensure you have the right people in the room, and take your leave.
  5. Delegate ruthlessly. Once you’ve decided that you cannot (or are not) adding value to a meeting you’re in, delegate the work of oversight or participation to the right role holder in the organization. That way the information shared, and decisions taken in the meeting can be brought to the organization at the right level, in the right context. A key and often forgotten part of delegation, however, is the art of holding someone accountable. Don’t be a “fire and forget” manager.

But if you’re still uncertain and want to talk it over a bit – click here and book a call!

CORE International | Organization Design Consultants