Working Remotely: ‘Failure-Proof’ Your Nonprofit During COVID-19
So many nonprofit organizations are shifting their employees to working from home to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet they’re not considering the potential disasters that can occur as a result of this transition.
An example of this is what one of my coaching clients experienced two weeks before the COVID-19 outbreak was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. Hannah is the executive director of a nonprofit organization with a staff of 70 people, and she decided to shift the whole organization to a work-from-home setup due to the coronavirus.
Hannah made her decision after closely observing the news and trends surrounding the growing number of COVID-19 cases in Italy and having conversations with me about the mistakes many nonprofit leaders make in trusting too much in optimistic government guidelines. Paramount on her mind as well was to ensure that her nonprofit organization’s operations will continue to run smoothly should a statewide or nationwide lockdown be enforced eventually.
However, not all of the organization’s stakeholders were supportive of her decision. A member of Hannah’s leadership team casually mentioned vague details of the plan to lower-level staff while they were out for lunch. Within a few hours, these incomplete details had already travelled through the grapevine and caused confusion within the organization.
As a result, some key stakeholders, including a couple of board members, voiced that Hannah and her team were overreacting. Others felt uncomfortable with disrupting their work routine — such as converting on-site meetings with external stakeholders to virtual meetings instead — to accommodate the shift. With so many things to consider, Hannah felt overwhelmed and asked for my input on a sound strategy to ensure a successful transition.
3 Key Steps to Preventing Disasters in Implementing Decisions
When Hannah approached me for advice, I recommended the “failure-proofing” strategy, which is a pragmatic and easy-to-use technique to defend against planning and project disasters.
Step 1: Imagine that the decision, project or process definitely failed, and brainstorm reasons for why your plan failed.
Gather key stakeholders and discuss the plan. Then, ask them to imagine that they are in a future where the project or process definitely failed (an approach informed by the Premortem technique). Doing so gives permission to everyone, even the biggest supporters of the project or process, to use their creativity in coming up with possible reasons for failure.
Have each participant anonymously write out three plausible reasons for this disaster. These failures should include internal decisions under the control of the project team, such as cost and staffing, as well as potential external events, such as an innovation introduced by a competitor.
The facilitator gathers everyone’s statements, and then highlights the key themes brought out as reasons for project failure, focusing especially on reasons that would not be typically brought up, and ensuring anonymity in the process. If you are going through this technique by yourself, write out separate reasons for project or process failure from the perspective of each relevant aspect of yourself.
Going back to Hannah, she decided to gather seven stakeholders that included the VP of fundraising, operations, HR and finance, as well the IT director and a couple of frontline staff. She recruited Joe, the VP of the board, to be an independent facilitator.
They discussed the current plan, which was to shift all 70 employees to a remote work setup in two weeks. Everything — even business meetings —- would be done online after two weeks. The IT team would migrate the 70 employees to a remote work setup in batches of 35 employees per week. The leadership team would be included in the last batch to be migrated, to give ample time to complete or shift critical vendor and external stakeholder meetings to virtual meetings.
After outlining the plan, everyone submitted their anonymous reasons for failure. Joe read out the participants’ anonymous statements, which highlighted one key theme: The plan failed because it wasn’t communicated in a clear manner. Most of the participants raised doubts that the leadership team can communicate the plan efficiently due to past cases of miscommunication of policy changes. A clear example was the lunch incident, when a member of the leadership team mentioned vague details of the plan to their colleagues, which caused confusion.
Step 2: Brainstorm ways to fix problems and integrate your ideas into the plan.
Decide on several failures that are most relevant to focus on, and brainstorm ways of solving these, including how to address potential mental blindspots. Also discuss any evidence you might use that would serve as a red flag that the failure you are discussing is occurring or about to occur. For this step, it is especially important to have people with authority in the room.
The leader or note-taker writes down the possible solutions. If you are going through the technique by yourself, get outside input at this stage.
Circling back to Hannah’s discussion group, Susan, the VP of HR, took on the task of addressing the communication problem proactively.
Susan would discuss the communication issues tackled in the discussion group with leadership team members. She would then propose for the organization to send out immediately an organization-wide announcement on the migration to telecommuting and the steps that will be taken.
Then, each senior leader would have in-person meetings with their direct reports to get their buy-in and ensure that the message passed effectively down the chain of command. The meetings would also involve determining the next steps for each team.
Step 3: Imagine that the decision, project or process succeeded spectacularly; brainstorm ways of achieving this outcome; and integrate your ideas into the plan.
We addressed failure: Now let’s make sure you not simply avoid failure, but maximize success! Next, imagine that you are in a future where the project or process succeeded far beyond what you expected. Have each participant anonymously write out plausible reasons for this success. Next, have the facilitator highlight the key themes.
Discuss all the reasons, and check for the same cognitive biases as above. Evaluate anonymously the probability of each reason for success, and decide which deserve the most attention. Then, brainstorm ways of maximizing each of these reasons for success.
The leader or note-taker writes down the ideas to maximize success. If you are going through the technique by yourself, get outside input at this stage.
In Hannah’s discussion group, Joe asked each participant to anonymously write out the reasons for the plan’s success. When Joe read out the statements, there was one key theme: They imagined that the plan succeeded because the leadership was very responsive to anxieties and concerns from employees during the transition. To address that, the IT team set up a dedicated phone line staffed by two team members that any employee could text or call. Then, they could quickly answer questions, or route the question to the person who had the answer.
To prevent work-from-home disasters in this time of transitioning to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, make sure to use the “failure-proofing” technique prior to implementing decisions of any significance, as well as to assess the management of substantial projects and processes. To see case studies with in-depth guidelines of how you can apply this strategy as an individual or a team, see the “Manual on Failure-Proofing.”
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a thought leader in future-proofing, decision making and cognitive bias risk management in the future of work for nonprofit executives. He serves as the CEO of the boutique consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts, which specializes in helping forward-looking nonprofit leaders avoid dangerous threats and missed opportunities.
As an author, he has written “The Blindspots Between Us: How to Overcome Unconscious Cognitive Bias and Build Better Relationships,” "Resilience: Adapt and Plan for the New Abnormal of the COVID-19 Coronavirus Pandemic" and Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage.”
His expertise comes from more than 20 years of consulting, coaching, speaking and training on future-proofing, strategic decision-making and planning, and cognitive bias risk management. His clients include innovative startups, major nonprofits and Fortune 500 companies. His expertise also stems from his research background as a behavioral scientist, studying decision-making and risk management strategy over a 15-year span in academia. After getting a Ph.D at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he was appointed as a professor at The Ohio State University, publishing dozens of peer-reviewed articles in academic journals.