It was John F Kennedy who first used this term, mistakenly interpreting the Mandarin brush strokes for crisis to signify both danger and opportunity. This was a linguistic error but a stroke of motivational genius that has endured over decades and been quoted in many contexts. What he was inferring was that in every crisis there is an embedded opportunity if you are able to look for it (and ability is everything).
There was a book published in 1998 called Who Moved My Cheese (which became an international best seller) which is a short, light-hearted parable about change, by author, Dr. Spencer Johnson. It follows the physical and emotional journeys of four characters – Sniff, Scurry, Hem and Haw – as they search, find, lose and must rediscover their favourite food, cheese, in a large, twisting maze.
The story is a modern parable which guides the reader through a series of story lines to understand how best to deal with significant change in your life. Based on what Scurry and Sniff (two mice) and Hem and Haw (two humans) do when their food supply runs out. Spencer provides enduring advice on the way to manage relationships, business, decision making, what to keep, what to let go a whole lot easier.
The thing that Spencer and Kennedy had in common with the author of this article is an understanding that it is not the facts that help or derail us, but the story we attach to them. This is incredibly important right now. There are a lot of things happening and endless news around these things that could scare us, immobilise us or simply shut down our intuitive/creative/innovative brains. Fear is about flight or fight; we have to make sure we collaborate and create.
Recently, we published an article about the need to expect the unexpected. We are watching this develop as we speak. Whilst there is universal empathy for the people of Wuhan, to the families in China (in particular) who have lost loved ones, the ancillary damage of this virus is felt worldwide. Already, businesses throughout the world are already feeling the pinch of the Coronavirus outbreak, supply, taken for granted, has stopped dead for many wholesalers and retailers, ships are stranded, universities simply can’t commence certain courses and hundreds of thousands of students and tourists are stranded.
It’s true that many executives and teams simply do not know how to respond or are gearing up for a crisis response. Fair enough. It is difficult to know what to do when your business or community or university are significantly disrupted, not by competitors, but by a threat you can’t even see.
Perhaps we could have predicted what a pandemic might do, not just to the people who are sick, but to the organisations that are deeply affected when protocols lock down and doors are locked on factories, ports and schools. But we suspect most people didn’t think it through. Right now, goods are being blocked from leaving China and being blocked from entering other countries as are people everywhere. People are being prevented from travelling, deals have been cancelled, stock is running out and piling up in equal measure. It’s frightening to think where things could be in a few weeks from now, if the virus remains unchecked.
So how do you take this crisis and turn it into an opportunity without being crass or insensitive? How do you keep staff motivated and creative while having little direct control?
What is curious is that there are many businesses who are staring down the barrel of a lean few months, or worse, and yet there are others who, whilst acknowledging the immediate challenge of Coronavirus or, indeed, the longer term (and evident) impacts of the climate crisis, are actually gearing up to take advantage of the opportunities being presented to them.
You might be surprised to know it often requires just a little out-of-the-box thinking. With many trade lines between the rest of the world and China paralysed, customers will begin searching elsewhere for goods and services, and so those businesses that can move quickly to gear up to meet the demand are likely to do well during this time of uncertainty. It may just be the right time to invest. Some businesses might have put significant resources into overseas production and now discover hungry strategic partners locally. Whilst face-to-face contact might slow down in universities, online learning is going to escalate. While we don’t travel in some countries, we are likely to travel much more in our own.
It is important to know that seeking out opportunities is a mindset. Unquestionably times of major change need some degree of belt tightening. The trick is not to go overboard or do this only. This might create short term relief but does long term damage. There are abundant alternatives and lateral ideas that experts can facilitate, and your own people can generate.
What changes will your organisation have to make? What skills will you have to bring in to meet the challenge? What systems and process changes will be required? And how will all of this impact on your current culture?
Crisis brings dangerous opportunity; it just needs to be managed appropriately. Keep hope alive and people will find a way through the darkest of times.