W, as in… War Room
By Frédéric Sos - March 27th 2020

"The Executive Committee is gathering in the War Room!"

Should I be taking advantage of this period of self-isolation to write about the way our government, France's executive team, is guiding the country during such precarious times? A number of friends have encouraged me to do so; some clients have even asked me… The incredible complexity of this situation obviously lends itself to criticizing any response, but these posts are not about taking easy shots. For the time being, I've preferred to reserve judgment, observe events as they unfold and take a distance.

Nonetheless, this situation reminds me of the time when a large company had to face serious difficulties in developing, industrializing and launching production of its first batch of a high-profile item that would shape its business sector. It should be pointed out that production started up even though the two previous steps had not yet been finalized.
The multiple stakes in play, plus the impact on the stock price and consequences of media scrutiny, had pushed the Executive Committee to behave in crisis mode, meeting under CEO supervision every Friday afternoon.

For at least three hours, sometimes even longer, this team hunkering down in one of the plant's conference rooms, arranged like a War Room and covered with myriad control charts, explored, weighed the merits and ultimately decided on highly operational topics, in some cases technically sophisticated, instead of the usual personnel two or three grade levels below.
On Monday morning, the plant manager would debrief and present to his own team the decisions made and the strategy adopted going forward, often after a now-standard lead-in from one of the members: "so what did the big chiefs come up with on Friday?". The sarcasm wasn't subtle, as some of the instructions had totally overlooked specific technical constraints. The concern turned to finding ways to skirt the orders from above, without being too blatant about it, so that all could proceed smoothly…

In gaining a perspective of what happened during this period (lasting a few months), the findings drawn up, in collaboration with the team, highlighted the following:

  • senior management involvement had been perceived as underscoring their commitment to the various stakeholders; but on the other hand,
  • far from optimizing the process for settling difficulties, this Friday ritual had become an obstacle, as some managers would wait for executives to advise on the various options before taking action,
  • preferred alternatives had sometimes generated additional constraints, requiring interventions from operators who were already overwhelmed,
  • the majority of management staff had opted for an execution-driven approach, as their desire to oversee responsibilities had given way to the need for alignment and conformity, in keeping with their professional conscience and the contribution expected from them to ensure a coordinated handling of the crisis.

In other words, this understandable reaction on the part of an executive team, aware of the critical nature of the situation, had paradoxically though quite logically triggered a wave of responsibility-shedding, all the more regrettable given that those impacted could ostensibly be considered as the best in their field and technical specialization. It's also quite upsetting to note that throughout this period, the word from management wound up sparking confusion: "act with responsibility, by doing exactly what we ask!".

In this type of situation, the typical reflex is to reinforce what already exists and demand compliance. Consequently, this crisis had further amplified the company's cultural traits, notably regarding the managerial approach implemented by the executive team. Moreover, it exposed in broad daylight the conviction (belief?) that when the stakes of a particular situation become critical, those most capable of making the right decisions are executive team members and not personnel who assume responsibilities during normal operations. Such an attitude can only be justified if those assigned responsibility prove to be ineffective even during normal times. Then what would they be doing occupying these posts in the first place? And what can be said of those who appointed them and kept them in their functions? From this perspective, since we're talking about experienced professionals with suitable qualifications to fulfill their role, such a stance must be viewed as showing distrust and lack of respect, leading to the associated anticipated outcomes.

Crisis situations offer powerful indicators of an organization's culture and values (see the post entitled V, as in… Values); hence, the decisions made and actions undertaken will express, much more than longwinded speeches (which managers all too often feel compelled to deliver in times like these), the consideration and confidence placed in each internal and external contributor: employees, partners, service providers, suppliers, etc.
What will they think in a year from now about how their (your?) company behaved towards them?

As regards the executive team's performance in such situations, like in so many others as well, it would be necessary to guarantee that decisions are made AND made at the right level, meaning at the level of the person most capable of making them.

The risk of setting up a War Room is to disconnect War Room participants from the rest of the company's environment, both inside and outside. A disconnection like this tends to gain more widespread acceptance by its supposed legitimacy due to the urgency and criticality of the situation at hand. In general, I'm skeptical of these kinds of metaphors, thrusting the company onto an unfamiliar battlefield and warranting a War Room. A company is not an armed brigade. Shouldn't the complexity of the underlying situation lead organizations to mobilize intelligence and expertise in all posts where these professionals are found, in places where they can freely express themselves while counting on the support and confidence of their leaders?