Lessons from generals: Decisive action amid the chaos of crisis


Here is an excerpt from an article written by Yuval Atsmon, David Chinn, Martin Hirt, and Sven Smit for the McKinsey Quarterly, published by McKinsey & Company. To read the complete article, check out others, learn more about the firm, and sign up for email alerts, please click here.

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Inspiration drawn from crisis-management professionals can help decision makers in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The world today can make us feel like we are living under occupation. The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in lockdowns in many communities, taking away our freedom of movement and assembly. It threatens our lives and is destroying our economies. In these warlike conditions, the battlefront is moving fast from safeguarding our lives to safeguarding our livelihoods. These are two massive fronts, evolving at exponential speed, and no one has more experience in responding to such conditions than professional military leaders do. Military commanders are accustomed to operating under a fog of uncertainty and great time pressure and to making myriad decisions with fateful consequences—some tactical, for winning a battle, and some strategic, for winning a war.
In a time of crisis, there is a premium on bold leadership and decisive action. Military-command structure—the management system used by armed forces during major conflicts—is a framework explicitly set up to handle issues that represent true danger and that escalate at an enormous and unpredictable pace. Developed over millennia to handle the most demanding emergencies in human history, it is a system of response that goes well beyond the crisis team you have likely already established in your organization. The current pandemic, with its unparalleled scale, complexity, and severity, requires a unique playbook and new operating models.
At the same time, you need to plan ahead for the structural changes it will trigger in many industries, which will present both significant challenges and opportunities.If there is one big takeaway from the world’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak so far, it is that we have been too slow: too slow in preparing for the virus, too slow in reacting to its spread, and too slow in putting in place lockdowns. The one exception has been the economic-policy response—many countries moved with unprecedented speed to approve funds to cushion the grave impact of the lockdowns on communities and businesses.
Nevertheless, the number of issues hitting companies today is escalating rapidly as the economic impact spreads. After overwhelming healthcare systems, the pandemic is overwhelming businesses. We are heading for an economic shock bigger than any since World War II—and business leaders struggling to respond can learn a great deal from military generals.There are three main insights we can draw from military crisis management:

  • A military-command structure can help reduce confusion and enable faster, better decision making in your organization.
  • Managing simultaneously across all time horizons based on an integrated, strategic crisis-action plan is fundamental to reducing chaos and accelerating decisions.
  • Age-old principles of war can help keep your organization focused and motivated, improving its chances of achieving objectives.

Many business leaders have already taken decisive actions in responding to the current crisis with speed and resourcefulness. Now they are increasingly shifting their attention to planning not just for the days ahead but also for an extended period of uncertainty—and potentially a very different world—after COVID-19. We have interviewed a number of generals on the subject and learned that the practices and mindsets of military organizations can provide valuable guidance for all those time horizons.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Yuval Atsmon and David Chinn are senior partners in McKinsey’s London office, Martin Hirt is a senior partner in the Greater China office, and Sven Smit is a senior partner in the Amsterdam office.


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