COVID-19 continues to escalate, on March 11 the World Health Organization declared it a global pandemic and last Friday, a National Emergency was declared in the United States. Schools and universities are closed, sports leagues and mass gatherings are suspended around the world, every industry has been severely disrupted and businesses are in a holding pattern or have come to a grinding halt, while the United States and the world work together to cure this virus and reduce the economic fallout as soon as possible.

COVID-19 is a global emergency, which has created heightened sense of fear, panic, anxiety and stress. In these challenging times leadership requires emergency preparedness. I spoke with my friend Dr. Pierre Vigilance, who as a health official helped manage the local responses to SARS in 2003 and H1N1 in 2009. He is  working with a multi-disciplinary group of emergency managers, communications specialists, and experts in financial impact, human-centered design, and adapting spaces for user-needs to assist companies as they seek solutions to the problems this crisis presents by adopting a new wave of thinking. 

Pierre, thank you for joining me and for your quick thinking to help businesses during this crisis. 

What was the thinking behind putting this group together and what is your goal? 

Daily our health outcomes are impacted by numerous factors, many of which originate from where we live, work, play, pray, and congregate. But we typically think of health as being centered around healthcare with hospitals and healthcare providers at the tip of the spear. They are of course hugely important, but what puts us at risk for many diseases is not in their hands, and the unfortunate reality of pandemics drives that home with all the disruptions to daily living that we are now seeing around the world. 

In order for us to weather this storm as communities, and to help keep precious healthcare resources functioning in a sustainable manner, we have to take societal countermeasures seriously, and that takes the engagement of expertise beyond healthcare. We like to call it “Junctional Thinking”, a problem-solving method where we employ a range of communications and collaboration tools to solve complex problems with our clients. 

If there is no ‘playbook’, why do business leaders need to think differently? 

Good leaders in any sector who are thinking about the impact of disruptive situations all the time, and naturally look at challenges those disruptors create for their “bottom line”. Regardless of whether that bottom-line number represents, be it people served, product created, or revenue generated, the journey to that part of the balance-sheet is influenced by multiple factors.  Everything from mission-shift, client expectation changes, collaborator network interruptions, and reputation can come into play. All this calls for leadership to focus on managing change at the intersection of multiple factors which takes a broad range of partners and the expertise of people who have seen unusual circumstances unfold first-hand. They may not have thought in this way before, but times like this call for novel approaches. 

How can “Junctional Thinking” help a business or community get through this current crisis?

Junctional Thinking is all about helping leadership create solutions to the complex problems that show up at the intersection of multiple factors. In this case, new infection meets non-immune populations with high mobility and a lot of interpersonal interactions driving almost every element of daily existence. Junctional Thinking uses a combination of communication and collaboration tools that help us understand priorities; learn without prejudice from the lessons of others (i.e.Taiwan  and Italy); remain patient about the things we cannot control, i.e. availability of widespread testing or a vaccine; and figure out where the capacity exists to meet our collective priorities using internal, external, traditional and non-traditional collaborators. 

We did not have a name for the way we were thinking in Baltimore when SARS hit in 2003, but I think it is fair to say in retrospect that it was Junctional Thinking. In that situation, having a collection of experts from multiple sectors hear about the outbreak from their unique perspectives;quickly learn the challenges from each other; add a collective view of leadership and accountability; and then work together to create an environment where staff, citizens, and visitors could all feel more secure as the outbreak progressed was inspiring to be a part of.  As was the experience in 2009 with H1N1 and the successful “all-comers” vaccination campaign we executed in collaboration with the school system and recreations department. Such collaboration was instrumental in mitigating the risk of more widespread impact, and it’s what we need now as we deal with social-distancing directives, plan mass-testing options, address continuation of operations, and contemplate return-to-work protocols. 

Given the current status of the COVID-19 crisis, how should leaders think about adopting and adapting emergency preparedness plans? 

In a word, “Fast”, because every day without a plan is a day you fall further behind. . Many organizations already have business continuity protocols and may have practiced how they might operate if their offices were closed and people had to work from home. Considering how to do this for an extended period of time is worth the effort, especially with the likelihood of this virus to have more serious impact than we are currently experiencing. 

Emergency planning is not just about ensuring the outputs from a place of work continue, it also has to take into consideration ensuring the operability of the people who do the work. For operations where your work cannot be performed remotely, prioritizing your staff by ensuring that they can be safe in performing their duties, and feel capable of staying on task because they know the people they are accountable to at home are taken care of. Do your plans help you do that? Who are your current partners in this? Who else do you need to work with?  These are just some of the questions that might augment an emergency operations plan.  

How do leaders need to think about prioritizing the directives they are hearing from inside and out their organization? 

There is a lot of information out there, and even some of the most trusted sources are challenged by the complexity of messages they are transmitting. Applying the many directives we receive to their relevance at the level of what we do at work, in our communities, and at home is a start. Thinking about the activities taking place in each of these settings will reveal patterns of activity to which particular directives can be applied. Helping people understand what they can do at a time when we are being told all the things we cannot. 

Hygiene and sanitation is a good example, where reminders on handwashing can be augmented with information on how to effectively disinfect surfaces, and dispose of cleaning materials, where the directives call for similar tools and behaviors regardless of the setting. 

No one knows how long this crisis will last, optimistically it will be less than a month, but we should plan for longer with the knowledge that COVID19’s impact will be felt for months and possibly years to come. 

Our group is available for consultation with local and state government agencies, health systems, and corporations concerned with protecting their people; ensuring timely, accurate communications; stakeholder engagement; and business operation continuity.  

Thank you for your leadership Pierre. 

Collaboration, compassion and a new wave of thinking are all needed as we navigate this new reality of strange and uncertainty across the globe.  Please reach out to Pierre Vigilance with your questions.