Coronavirus | Innovation | Leadership | Transformation

How to Sustain the Momentum Unleashed by the Pandemic

Since the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations have achieved results in the span of weeks that would typically take months or years. These changes have occurred by necessity: Confronted with a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, many organizations have had to adapt quickly just to survive.

But the momentum unleashed by a pandemic can be replicated even after the crisis has passed. Here are three strategies for sustaining the energy and motivation of this moment.

1. Shorten the feedback cycle

In a moment of crisis, anxiety levels naturally run high. Counterintuitively, leaders can leverage the urgency of crisis to inspire teams to achieve great things quickly by helping employees keep threat levels low.

But what can leaders do to create that same momentum when no crisis is looming? Fortunately, we already have a proven method for bringing people together to achieve ambitious goals in record time: the hackathon.

A hackathon is a design sprint in which software engineers, designers, and experts collaborate intensively to build, prototype, and test a new product in the span of just 24 hours. Hackathons radically accelerate the pace of innovation, taking a process that typically takes months and condensing it to a single day—by creating a situation in which everyone’s racing against the clock toward the same urgent goal.

But hackathons aren’t just for software companies, and they can run far longer than 24 hours. Any organization can harness the power of the design sprint to create momentum, unleash creativity, and streamline cross-team coordination.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit the US in mid-March, NLI wanted to mobilize swiftly to help organizations thrive through the crisis. Since the crisis was already disrupting work, triggering a threat state in leaders and employees that interferes with productivity and performance, we knew we had to act quickly. So we resolved to build a brain-based solution to help organizations sustain productivity—and to release that product in just five weeks.

So NLI adopted an all-hands-on-deck, hackathon approach to building FOCUS: The Neuroscience of Thriving through Crisis. From mid-March to late April, the entire company coordinated to develop solution frameworks, write scripts, and produce videos.

The result was a remarkably efficient feedback cycle. With everyone working on the same project, teams didn’t have to wait for weekly meetings to communicate. Instead, they checked in with each other daily to discuss progress.

The imminence of the deadline meant everyone’s priorities were aligned. No more having to approach colleagues, each with multiple priorities competing for their attention, and wait for them to finish their own urgent projects before turning to yours. Instead, critical feedback arrived almost instantaneously, enabling teams to get things done quickly.

If a traditional project is like multiple trains crammed together on the same railway line, this was something new: parallel tracks leading to the same station to deliver results better and faster.

As it turns out, shortening the feedback cycle works just as well with no crisis present. The key is defining a shared goal and giving people the freedom to prioritize that one project above all else. “For the next month,” leaders can say, “this project is your only priority. Deprioritize your other work as we all come together to create something remarkable.”

2. Elevate the human

NLI’s hackathon approach worked partly because it shortened the feedback cycle. But another welcome benefit of defining a shared goal is that it promotes “relatedness”—the feeling of human connection and belonging we experience when people come together. Studies show that defining what psychologists call a “superordinate goal” increases harmony, creates a common identity, and unites people in a sense of shared purpose.

Providing additional relatedness for employees is especially critical during lockdown, when we’re all starved for human contact. For the tech giant HP, that sense of relatedness has come not just from shared goals, but also from direct efforts to create connection and bring people together through virtual volunteering events and webinars on topics like homeschooling.

At this moment, because of the crisis, organizations are more willing than ever to elevate the human element and take care of their employees. By continuing to promote relatedness once the crisis is over, organizations can capitalize on a rare opportunity to reinvent their culture and keep the momentum going.

3. Create certainty

Crises like the coronavirus pandemic have the potential to make employees feel anxious and overwhelmed. Confronted with endless uncertainty about their health, their finances, and their loved ones, people enter a “threat state”—a fight-or-flight response in the brain that compromises the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, diminishing the capacity to focus, collaborate with others, and solve problems. The result is a reduced ability to think clearly, precisely when we need it most.

That’s why it’s important to minimize threat by reducing feelings of uncertainty. But with so much still unknown about the virus, the economy, and the future, how can leaders reduce uncertainty? By increasing certainty wherever they can. Even when leaders themselves are uncertain about their organization’s trajectory, they can still raise certainty levels by offering clarity about what they do know, sharing what they can about values, goals, and timelines.

For HP, that clarity takes the form of clear, consistent communication with employees—regardless of whether the news is good or bad. The company has begun hosting virtual Q&As with HP’s Medical Director and other doctors, running regular calls between managers and the executive leadership team, and communicating protocol changes through a team of representatives from across the company.

Even when there’s no crisis in sight, providing employees with added certainty is a powerful way to inspire people and create motivation. For HP, the results have been so positive that the company plans to continue focusing on certainty long after the pandemic is a distant memory. “I think we’ll do communication differently going forward,” says Tracy Keogh, HP’s Chief Human Resources Officer. “We’ll support employees in a different way.”

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