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7 Steps to lead well and avoid Excel hell

Being well-led in times of crisis needs different ways of working
man looking confusingly at computer because of an excel problem
| Robert Hobbs | Performance

I’ll tell you what’s scary. Over the last 4 weeks, I’ve seen massive government departments, big corporate businesses, care homes and other critical front-line organisations spin up spreadsheet after spreadsheet to help them manage what is now the fastest-changing operational environment they’ve ever seen.

Of course, this is good people trying their best in a bad situation and doing something quickly. But, it’s a quick and dirty approach to a fundamental shift in the situation. That’s a bad mix. COVID-19 is not going away in the next week or two, it will be with us for 6 months at least and it will probably be with us in waves repeatedly for the next 12-18 months before a vaccine is available and in wide-spread use. So, is cobbling together emails and even multi-user spreadsheets stuck on a SharePoint site the right way to track and manage risks and issues, critical decisions and resulting fundamental work-changing actions?


If you’ve ever had to audit an Excel document as it changes over time, or have 30 people access it, not to mention having everyone updating it at the right time, in the right place without error – you’ll know it’s a nightmare.

Quite frankly, while we are all living in the current crisis nightmare, it’s one nightmare more than you need to inflict upon yourself, or others. But more than that, it’s a huge additional risk – to you, to the organisation, to the staff and the overall success of being well-led through the crisis into the new normal.

Remember MI5’s rumoured bugging of 1,000 wrong phones because of an Excel error? Or Fidelity’s Magellan $1.3 billion mistake when their spreadsheet reported in a '+', not a '-'! Even Harvard professors are not infallible when it comes to spreadsheets, embarrassing when it’s your students that pick up the mistake. And the list goes on, supposed errors at Transalta, Kodak, Barclays Capital, AstraZeneca, the Olympics… and of course, these are just the big-ticket items we all hear about because they had such massive reputational or financial damage.

So, imagine the case when your business is on the line, many of your staff are exhausted, overworked, or sick. Staff attrition is the highest it’s ever been, you’re back-filling with less trained or newly trained staff and running 10, 20 even 30 or more different spreadsheets, each with a slight variation and diversification per department or team.

Yes, that’s your “Oh crap” moment.

So, what’s the answer? Managing a team either during a crisis or in a highly governed business, or both need a totally different type of approach.

Let’s consider what a well-led process is.

Ideally, months ago you would have identified your pandemic risk and possible issues, and clearly articulated what the subsequent decisions and resulting actions would be. Notifications to take those actions would automate out to your operational teams instantly as the risk materialised into present reality! You didn’t do this? You’re not alone. So today (yes today) what can you do without having a negative impact on your teams?

Leadership principles; show you care, share a clear vision, enable goals and actions cascade for each team, empower important aligned action for each individual, look out for each team and each individual when they need it are even more important than usual.

So, what are the actionable steps to deliver these principles for this crisis?

Step 1: Make sure your teams are OK

A daily, real-time quick on-line survey finding out how each person is doing, shows your staff you care, that you want to help them, and they matter. It tells you the current health of your workforce. It takes under 10 seconds to complete and your 5-year-old could use it. That also establishes your organisation’s capacity to deliver, a key fact for leading in a crisis.

Step 2: Predict staffing shortfalls, peaks and availability

Your online app should be helping you do this, showing the collective health and wellness and resilience of each team. By seeing the trend in health and wellness, you can identify where specific teams need more support or may need to be stood down from operational status in the next 7 days. This establishes your highest areas of operational risk.

Step 3: Make sure your home workers are supported and have the things they need

All of our staff are being asked to work from home where possible. Many had not been prepared for this. Do they have everything that they need? Your app should help you find this out. Are they all able to communicate easily, how are phone messages diverted to them, do they have essential supplies, what would enable them to matter more in battling the crisis?

That’s you getting your head around your staffing for now.

Step 4: Track what teams are now doing and if it’s working

Communicate with them in real-time, no matter where they are and offer help and guidance. Get real-time accurate information. If your business management reporting systems aren’t automated and real-time, recognise the failure and determine to deal with it shortly.

Step 5: What is everyone going to STOP doing!

This is where it gets tricky. Your business plan has already been impacted and you need to change it. Whilst you might have taken months to revise your plan in previous years, you now need to change it in days. You need to work out deviation from it and re-plan with new priorities and goals. Give a clear and credible direction to deliver what matters most.

What does change look like? London Fire Brigade has released up to 20% of fire-fighters to drive ambulances. Dyson stopped making vacuums and is making ventilators, as have Mercedes F1 and six other F1 team directing teams into new supply chains, and manufacturing steps. No plan can credibly continue as it was pre-March 1.

You will probably need 4 different plans in rapid succession, each lasting 2-3 weeks to 2-3 months.

Plan One

For the initial awareness and ramp-up period, moving staff to home working, accommodating the change in lock-down life-style impact and the essential social distancing approach. Caring for staff, making rapid decisions that affect them.

Plan Two

Coping with reduced staffing during the flattened, and therefore prolonged peak, accommodating moving staff around to whichever roles in which they are most needed, continuously re-evaluating which services can be re-opened, when, where is the most demand, where is there less demand. Improving operational information feedback.

Plan Three

Adapting as resilience comes into your workforce, as staff start coming back from sickness with immunity. Re-evaluating service demands as lock-down begins to be eased, what will that mean for service and product demands? What back-log will need handling?

Ensuring your risks during a second surge are properly considered and contingency plans improved. Tracking the factual data more frequently, building faster response times into your management reporting systems at all levels, improving assurance of information and actions. Improving infection control processes, accommodating social distancing protocols in all areas.

Plan Four

What does the new normal mean for you? How will we all have changed in how we behave and require services. Where will we travel, how? Where will services be required? What will be expected to be provided in domiciliary settings? What additional social distancing, home working, cleanliness, infection protection habits and facilities will be demanded until a vaccine is in place and widely used. And will our collective experience have changed patterns permanently?

Remember that change programme you implemented that took 2 years to implement... You’re now implementing more drastic ones every 2- 6 weeks. If you don’t have visibility on what people are doing now and providing clear communication of new goals and operational ways of delivering you are NOT leading your business well.

Step 6: Log your major problems and what decisions you are taking

Log how do these decisions affect key members of staff. Create a clear evidenced record that you are making the changes. For each change decision, record and communicate those changes. This isn’t rocket science, and an audited log now will help you dramatically in the future as you build change on change, and set out to reverse some decisions which will need reversing, either because circumstances have changed, or the decision didn’t have the effect you expected. With so many distributed decisions, people made centrally and locally, at home and in virtual meetings, a centralised shared app provides secure and audited evidence.

Step 7: Escalate & Roll Over Actions

Enable teams to easily ask for help and then ensure you offer advice and support. Your team are facing issues they have never faced before. Each phase of the crisis will introduce new, different challenges.

Provide the ability to very easily and quickly escalate key issues. The ‘water cooler’ technique of managing by walking around and chatting, doesn’t work if your staff aren’t in the same building. Concentrate on clear written communication, evidence the issues, the escalation and the responding guidance so that it is easy for the staff member to refer back to it.

Automate key action succession planning in advance. This is MUCH easier than having teams of people trying to work out after team members fall incapacitated who is doing what, when and who should now take ownership. Times like this need a swift response now, not more wading through the chaos.

So, what can I do?

Remember, during times of high change you need EASY to use, easy to deploy processes that quite frankly an 8-year-old could use.

It’s this requirement that initially drove you to whirl up those excel spreadsheets. But, as you are likely already seeing, these are not fit for purpose. Look for software that will help, and a company prepared and able to support you.

At InPhase, we have been supporting business planning and change, actions and assurance for decades, through business as usual and periods of rapid ‘burning platform’ existential change. Today, every organisation faces an unavoidable, ‘burning platform’ for change.

Our series of COVID-19 Crisis Apps, free for NHS and emergency services customers, support you and every member of your staff in managing through rapidly changing staff health and wellness, objectives, decisions and crisis actions.

It’s hard to visualise what the new world will be like beyond the comradery, effort, determination and desire to make things right. But, one very sorry thing is for sure what you do now does matter and showing people you care and making things easier now and for the long-haul matters most.

Robert Hobbs

Chief Executive Officer

InPhase’s Chief Executive and Founder, Robert has been the visionary leading InPhase to be one of the UK's leading providers of management, governance and assurance solutions, and helping organisations align their actions and goals more easily and efficiently with InPhase's suite of integrated apps.

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