This is the first part of a series of snippets from our new book, Lockdown Learnings. 50 life lessons from 50 leaders in 50 days of lockdown. You can buy your copy here.
In the first week of the Coronavirus crisis, my team was in an interesting position. As the team responsible for helping our organization navigate through and thrive in change, we saw need after need for our services. As well as newer and more exciting opportunities to expand our influence within the business, we had our calling: We were going to single-handedly help our leaders and our organization figure out how to navigate this “new normal”.
So, we got to work, and we worked hard. We set up daily virtual stand-up meetings to keep on top of everything going on. But after about three or four days, we noticed something was wrong. None of our projects seemed to be going anywhere. Some members of the team were having serious challenges handling the workload, not to mention the challenges of having to navigate everything on the personal side. After just three or four days, were we reaching burn-out mode? What happened?
What we learnt through painful experience is a lesson taught by Dieter Uchtdorf, a former Lufthansa pilot and executive. He shared his experience of training new pilots. When these new pilots encountered turbulence, they would often speed up, so as to get through the turbulence and return to calmer air quicker. However, this instinct is wrong, as it actually increases danger. The correct and safe course of action for a pilot who encounters turbulence is to slow down1.
These new pilots’ actions and decisions are completely understandable. Our brains, specifically the limbic system and the amygdala, are programmed to keep us safe. When we encounter unsafe environments, the amygdala kicks in to compel us to leave that environment as quickly as possible. These instincts serve us well when the unsafe environment results in physical threats. But these instincts are counterproductive when our sense of normalcy, status, autonomy or certainty are threatened. When our amygdala takes over, our critical thinking is reduced and along with it goes our creativity and problem solving capabilities. To regain these capabilities, we need to slow down, not speed up.
Slowing down doesn’t necessarily mean physically going slower.
A crisis may require quick and decisive action. But what slowing down does mean is focusing on that which is truly important. It’s focusing on the “must haves” and eliminating the “nice to haves”. This creates the space our brains need to be able to find solutions to those problems that must be solved. As a result, our productivity actually goes up. Our ability to accomplish more is increased as we focus on doing less. All the extraneous activities, initiatives, programmes or plans that occupied our time and thoughts are cleared to allow more head-space for those that are truly important and impactful.
As mentioned above, our team discovered this quickly. As the list of items we “could do” expanded every day, we found that the list of things we actually “did do” decreased. This was reflected in both our personal and our work lives. We quickly discovered that our quest to be even more productive actually led to us being less productive. So we changed the focus of our daily stand-ups. No longer were they business updates, project report outs, status briefings or planning meetings. These daily stand-ups became personal check-ins. We spent 25 minutes of our agreed-upon 30-minute meetings simply checking in with each other. As we did so, and as we learnt more and more about how the crisis was affecting each of us, the decisions to scale back became natural and easy. We decided to focus on what was most important: Making sure each of us were doing okay first and foremost. This allowed us to come to the realization that a lot of the programmes, projects or other plans that we created were “nice to haves” rather than “need to haves”.
As a result of our efforts to simplify, slow down and focus on the most important work, we found our impact on the organization increase, not decrease! The number of leaders and individuals we impacted in April increased 260%, and those numbers have remained steady in May.
So the learning for me has been to slow down, focus on what is most important (which always starts with our people) and trust that the results will follow.
1 Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Of Things That Matter Most
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