At the Helm

3 ways to make time for strategic thinking in a crisis

by Ken Leonczyk, JD and Matthew Stevens, JD

Editori's note: This story was updated on April 29, 2020.

As Mike Tyson once said, "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." There is nothing easy about strategic thinking, particularly when you're in a crisis. The very nature of an "unprecedented" crisis means that you have moved into a reactive state—dealing with supply-chain issues, staffing shortages, and clinician fear and burnout, just to name a few concerns.

Covid-19: What you need to know in 45 minutes

Add to that the host of immediate economic realities—cash flow, massive declines in surgeries, reimbursement pressure, macro-economic trends, market volatility, bond covenants—it can seem that even thinking about your future strategy should be the last item on your already unrealistically long to-do list. However, our experience counseling clients during times of crisis—both inside and outside of the health care industry—has proven that successful leaders are able to move beyond crisis management to anticipating their next strategic moves by following three steps:

3 ways to be a strong leader in these turbulent times

1. Create time to think further down the road—and make the most of it.

In a crisis like this one, time becomes ever more precious—that isn't going to change anytime soon; flattening the curve does not change the area under the curve, it just trades decreased intensity for increased duration. First, accept the reality that your time is at a premium. Then, make a commitment to yourself and to your organization to dedicate at least one hour each day to next-step strategic thinking.

The discipline to unplug and create the space to think about what may happen next, and where you want your organization to be positioned in the next three to six months will be what sets you apart. Calendar this hour and, while emergencies will arise, do your best to protect this time. We've found that scheduling this protected time first thing in the morning usually works best. Alternatively, some leaders have found great success by devoting an hour around lunchtime to this period of unplugging and re-focusing.

Begin this dedicated time by taking 10 minutes to step back, breathe, and cultivate the internal mindset that allows you to think clearly and differently. Do not surf the web for pertinent news stories. Countless studies show that a short period of mindfulness meditation before making a decision leads to better outcomes, and avoids the really bad ones. So don't rob yourself of this vital opportunity to unplug and re-acclimate yourself before your period of strategic thinking.

2. Anticipate the rebound.

Now it's time to focus on your strategic thinking. You're in the middle of a crisis. You don't have to re-engineer the entirety of your five-year plan. You just have to decide what you think is most likely to occur in the next three to six months and how you'll adjust to this new reality. Focus your energy and your team's energy on this shortened timeframe.

Coming out of this crisis, you'll need to consider which core competencies your organization needs to own, and where you should look to outsource or partner. Now may be the time to think about the peripheral tasks that can be better handled by someone else. It's also becoming clearer each day that the post-Covid world will not simply be a return to how things used to be. As part of your strategic thinking, you should anticipate what your new world may look like and the posture you want your organization to take when physical-distancing begins to lessen or end.

3. Stay nimble.

Finally, your initial projections will likely fall short, and the frequently shifting economic and clinical realities will challenge you. Some of your greatest plans will simply fail. Some will be helpful for a while, until the next big paradigm shift occurs. Hardwiring flexibility into the team is the hallmark of all organizations that have successfully navigated a crisis.

As Ike Eisenhower put it, "Plans are of no particular value, but…planning is indispensable." Now is the time to begin planning, even in the face of an uncertain future.

Covid-19: What you need to know in 45 minutes

Each week, Advisory Board's Vice President for Executive Insights, Christopher Kerns, will lay out in 45 minutes the most important developments for hospital, health system, and other health care industry executives in the Covid-19 outbreak. If you make time for only one call each week to stay up to date on the epidemic, this is the one.

Access Now