In the early stages of a major business transformation, the leaders of a large global airline faced an urgent new priority—responding to the impact of Covid-19 on employees and passengers. Their first moves were grounded in empathy and compassion: keeping customers and employees safe, and maintaining the operational network long enough to return passengers home.
The crisis required total focus and commitment, threatening to overshadow the critical business transformation. Then an interesting thing happened: The groundwork that the company had established to run its transformation, including a dynamic program office and a powerful digital platform to support it, turned out to be just what it needed to move quickly and decisively.
In short order, the leadership team launched a business “war room” focused on addressing the needs of customers and employees, stress testing financial scenarios, and strengthening service and supply lines. In a matter of days, the organization carved out a team within the existing program office to lead its new Covid-19 crisis management program, which would be directly responsible for executing and coordinating all initiatives. The digital platform embedded for the transformation quickly became the company’s nerve center to manage initiatives, collaborate across far-flung and cross-functional teams, and track progress. Even as the crisis continues, the airline is taking actions that enable it to transform the business for a different future.
While each company’s experience of the pandemic is different, the recent journey of the global airline reveals some valuable principles for mobilizing quickly in a crisis.
Expand transformation and program management teams into new roles
Leaders redeploy existing program management and transformation resources to accelerate mobilization. They adjust or expand the teams’ scope by spinning off a separate set of Covid-19 initiatives or by creating a parallel but more urgent program with new actions and targets. Companies will certainly need to dedicate resources, but they can release capacity and capabilities by stopping or pausing existing initiatives. Tapping existing transformation teams to build capabilities and provide guidance during the early days also helps to ramp up quickly.
Launch a crisis management office
An effective crisis management office aligns leadership, launches and manages mission-critical initiatives, and keeps employees informed and engaged. The team should be led by senior executives and agile teams in a war room setting, with a clear mandate, daily stand-ups and defined decision rights. A core function of the crisis management office is to model the right business scenarios, stress test the P&L to determine financial exposure, and then define trigger points for key actions.
The mandate will be broad and will also evolve over time. In early days, the team focuses on protecting customers, employees, operations and cash flow. The focus then shifts to stabilizing operations, protecting and growing revenue, and conserving cash. Teams can pull “spending hand brakes” immediately and agree on what break-the-glass actions may need to be taken at key trigger points. This enables swift decision making as the situation escalates. When immediate priorities are under control, efforts turn to identifying how the company can go on offense, in addition to playing defense, to best position itself for the recovery and the new normal.
Use digital tools to establish governance and manage initiatives
The most effective crisis management teams use cloud-based program management tools, which increase the likelihood of success and minimize the administrative burden on the organization. With a consolidated view, crisis management teams can better spot and mitigate risks as well as speed up decision making. Geographically dispersed teams can collaborate to manage initiatives, track value and report progress.
But not all digital tools are created equal. Crisis management teams are already stretched and don’t have the bandwidth to set up or learn complicated systems. The best tools are designed to be light, intuitive and easy to launch.
Plan the transition from crisis response to a post-Covid world
The challenges of Covid-19 will generate a series of rapid-response initiatives, which will leave a mark on the organization for the foreseeable future. From the beginning, crisis management teams need to plan for continuity and have clear post-Covid objectives, complementing “deploy now” actions with corresponding “plan for the future” initiatives. This requires thinking about how each market will emerge, how customers will resegment in terms of behaviors and expectations, how supply chains and operations can become more resilient, and how organizations will infuse technology into ways of working.
Leading companies commit to an ambition that’s broader than getting through the crisis intact. They see an opportunity to strengthen relationships with customers, find ways to infuse flexibility in the supply chain, enhance company values and culture, and lean into the inevitable shift toward more digital ways of buying, communicating and working.
Empathy, action and leadership
We are still in the early days of the Covid-19 crisis, and everyone is learning as we go. While clear decisions and rapid action are necessary, the health and well-being of our people and communities is top of mind for all of us. These unique circumstances produce “CEO considerations” at almost every turn, requiring leaders to balance speed and action with regard for the health and welfare of employees, customers and suppliers. The more we can band together and leverage the strongest ways to navigate the crisis, the better we can lead through difficult and unprecedented times.
Hernan Saenz is a Bain & Company partner in Dallas and leads the firm’s Global Performance Improvement practice. Tom Holland is a partner with the Bain Accelerated Transformation business and is based in San Francisco. Patrick Litré is a Bain partner in Atlanta and leads firm’s Global Results Acceleration practice. Simon Henderson is global leader of Bain Accelerated Transformation and is based in the firm’s Sydney office. David Schannon is a partner with Bain’s Performance Improvement practice and is based in Silicon Valley. Mark Capeless is a principal in Bain’s Chicago office and a member of the Transformation practice.
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