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"Leading with Eyes Wide Open" Series: #2

[September 6, 2020] by Kathy Scott, PhD, and Bridget Sarikas


This is the second blog in our series titled “Leading with Eyes Wide Open.” It is for those who want to step up their game as leaders in the crisis, with increased awareness and understanding of the many opportunities and vulnerabilities in our midst, particularly when there are big consequences at stake. Through an understanding of the science of reliability, we can build our effectiveness as well as our resilience during times of disruption.

We all are dependent on systems. Systems are supports and controls (no - we are not talking about your Spanx!) that work together to achieve a shared purpose. Systems keep us on track and help us stay out of trouble – and who doesn’t need help with that? Our work systems are made up of an assortment of people and technology and can be anywhere from simple (your electronic scheduling process) to more complex (getting the right products to the right people on time). In order to perform in reliable ways, we need to live and work in reliable systems. And because systems are never perfect, it is critical to anticipate what can go wrong and build resilience into the systems we depend on (Griffith, 2020). Candidly – the “can go wrong” scenario is “a given,” so no more dragging your feet. The time to anticipate is now! Are you ready for the challenge? Excellent! Stay with us as we provide further insights and clarity.

There are many lessons that can be learned from the Pandemic about the reliability of our critical systems. The disruption unearthed many vulnerabilities, proving many systems inadequate and unreliable. Case in point – supply chains. Dr. Shih, a Harvard Business School professor (HBR, 2020) explores the hidden risks of the global supply chains that became very visible during the pandemic when the U.S. experienced extreme shortages of needed materials and products. Many companies had not anticipated a disruption of this proportion and did not anticipate the hidden vulnerabilities of their supply chain. And as a result, it created many unforeseen risks in our organizations and society in general – consider face masks, hand sanitizer, medications, food supplies and children’s education. This is a good place to take a pause and think how your own personal or professional vulnerabilities were exposed. Be honest and open to this introspection – it is so important in your leadership journey.

Now that you’ve had time to reflect, as a leader, think about your critical functions and the people, processes, supplies and technologies that get this function done. These are the critical systems to your every-day operations and performance. Anticipate what would happen if any one or more of these were disrupted (that’s not too tough) and how you could avoid or minimize the downside of these disruptions. In other words, think about how to build resilience into your systems.

This exercise is applicable to your personal life as well. We all have systems that keep us on track and functioning at our optimum – transportation systems, virtual technology and internet bandwidth, childcare systems, educational systems, food supply and delivery, health care, hair care, (and for one of the authors – a daily jolt of Starbuck’s caffeine), etc. When these systems are disrupted, we feel out of synch, discombobulated (aka – lousy), and perform less effectively.

Looking below the surface at the influencers is key. In order to build resilience into our systems, we must be willing to look below the surface and get a visual on the many factors that influence the performance of our systems. Feeling curious? Consider the following influencers:

  • The system design itself. Systems are designed with certain specifications to achieve a specific purpose, avoid a certain degree of risk and promote compliance. For example, our mobile phones are designed to provide communication on the go across a large area through accessibility to networks. When accessibility is obstructed by mountains or tall towers, the effectiveness of the system is compromised, and we revert back to childhood tantrums and panic until resolved. The technology developers that work through accessibility issues to assure reliable performance, regardless of the surrounding circumstances, win the day.

  • System degradation. Systems wear out and/or become outdated. Without proactive interventions, such as preventive maintenance programs, software updates and routine adaptation of policies and procedures to accommodate external demands, reliability declines. Check out your systems and determine if they are current and relevant, or if they need a makeover or replacement. This one is so important – when budgets are tight, as most are right now, technology/systems are usually the first to get slashed. Some leaders may resort to operating under the misguided philosophy of “why put off today what can be put off until tomorrow!” Not such a good idea with today’s challenges. Time for a redesign!

  • Resource matching. Have you ever been given the green light on a new project but not the budget to go with it? This is a mismatch in needed resources and leads to system malfunction and failure. Resources can be technology, time, data, materials, skills and competencies. An all too common resource mismatch is staffing that does not adjust for volume, resulting in delays, nonproductive time and waste. This can leave us feeling like we are in a “stupid gone viral” episode.

  • System capacity and operational load. These relate to resource matching. Systems are designed for a specific capacity or volume. When that capacity is exceeded or when the capacity expectations change for some reason, performance can suffer. A current example of changing system capacity is the result of changing expectations around “social distancing” in schools, organizations and restaurants. Old rules don’t apply and system capacity is impacted. (Finally – a need to move beyond the 5-year plan!)

  • Environmental factors. Epidemics, hurricanes, wars, racial unrest, political climate, malware all can have an impact on system performance, particularly when not expected or considered during the design process. Consider the impact of racial unrest current day. Many leaders are paying greater attention to the bias and injustices in their midst and are taking actions to create more just systems.

  • Human reliability. People take risks, make mistakes and perform in a variety of ways on any given day. Human factors such as behavioral choices, priorities, work under pressure, and perception of risk all have an impact on the reliability of the systems humans are interacting with. We are not perfect (and thank goodness we don’t have to be)! When we accept this, it opens the floodgates to new possibilities. This will be the topic of our next blog.

Application to a Current Opportunity - Virtual Work

Let’s consider a current-day opportunity and apply the concepts of reliable and resilient systems to this scenario. Imagine (ha ha) going from working physically together in bricks and mortar buildings to working virtually together from our homes. As leaders of individuals and teams, how do you know your teams have what they need to do their best work? And how do you know if they are consistently getting the desired results? When your supervisor asks you for your productivity report, how do you respond? “Trust me! We’ve got this.” may not be the best response.

The old assumptions and expectations about work have been completely disrupted for many of us. Fear and anxiety have become our constant companions. Our notions of productivity are challenged. Our systems need to quickly adapt to respond to the current and future challenges. And truth-be-told, this has needed to happen for a long time – our systems have degraded -- so let’s take advantage of this crisis.

Designing systems for today’s reality requires an understanding of old and new assumptions and values. Research (Johnson, 2000) tells us that:

  • Employees perform optimally when they work for 6-7 hours and then rest;

  • Employees want and need balance – such as a life outside of work;

  • Having time to think intuitively and reflect is often more effective in problem solving than mental agility; and

  • Employees want equitable pay and meaningful work.

The design of new work systems should consider these factors and move from time-based, activity-based, and face-time based, to value-based systems of work. Value is more than a financial equation. It is determined by the three elements of cost, quality and service (Malloch & Porter-O’Grady, 2018). New work systems will require attention to not just the cost of the work (productivity measures), but also the quality (effectiveness measures) and engagement of our employees and customers (engagement measures) to determine the overall value of the new system. This most likely will require new and/or revised roles and accountabilities, processes, incentives and rewards. If you haven’t begun to do this, it’s time.

We have had a significant shift in the site of work, type of work and resources available to accomplish the work. Leaders will need to regularly connect with their teams to develop a practical understanding of how their work has changed, what resources (competence, skills, materials and supplies, technology and data) are now needed and whether or not they are available. We’re not talking three-page e-mails, but quick verbal check-ins and/or video briefings. We call this communication! Don’t be an armchair quarterback – get in there and engage.

Determining a system’s capacity is particularly challenging right now. Leaders will need to develop a better understanding of how much time is truly needed to get the work done? With so much change and transition, people need more “think time” to effectively solve the problems and see the opportunities of the day. They also need more time during the day to manage family dynamics and needs. Through creating time and space for feedback from employees, leaders will enhance their visibility into the work capacity of their teams and systems.

The pandemic has upended businesses, industries and society. Some people are still holding out for a “return to normal.” Leaders can help move their teams forward by reinforcing that there will not be a return to business as usual. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. New systems and circumstances bring new opportunities and risks. Our employees have a whole new set of priorities, pressures and choices to make. Effective leaders will harness the talents of their teams as they move toward a shared vision, build in guardrails to keep them on track, instill meaning into daily operations and allow as much choice and flexibility as possible so that people can do their best work. People will surprise you when given the chance. So, go ahead and lead with eyes wide open!

The world as we know it has changed and will continue to rapidly morph into new ways. Our future is dependent on reflecting on the old ways, acknowledging the new, and continuously adapting our systems so that we can effectively take advantage of the opportunities in our midst.

Titter Time: Everybody is a Genius

"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid." ~ Albert Einstein


Griffith, S. (2020, pre-publication). The Hidden Science: Managing Organizational Risk through the Sequence of Reliability. Professional Edition.

Johnson, C. (2000). When working harder is not smarter. Inner Edge, 3(2), 18-21.

Porter-O’Grady, T. & Malloch, K. (2018). Quantum Leadership: Creating Sustainable Value in Health Care, 5th Ed. Burlington, MA: Jones and Bartlett.

Shih, W. (2020, September-October). Global supply chains in a post-pandemic world. Harvard Business Review, 83-89. Contents of Blog

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