If you ask anyone about Tom Hanks’ classic film Apollo 13, they will most likely respond with the movie’s most famous quote: “Houston, we have a problem.”
This line resonates right now within our communities and our sector. Just last week, La Piana Consulting shared the results of a survey about the impact of COVID-19 on the social sector, indicating that on average, organizations have had to lay off or furlough 19 percent of their staff.
The challenges we are up against are overwhelming. In the face of mounting problems, how do we move forward? In our webinar last week “Leading for the Long Term in Uncertain Times,” Laura Meyers, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington, D.C., encouraged us to look to another Apollo 13 quote: “What have we got on the spacecraft that’s good?”
“What have we got on the spacecraft that’s good?”
Some context might help you understand that quote. In the movie, the spaceship Apollo 13 has lost its main engine. Ed Harris, who is leading mission control in Houston, doesn’t focus on the problem – no engine – he even throws out the original flight plan. He focuses first on what assets are still functioning on the ship.
This example can guide us as we confront a new normal of operating amid COVID-19. It begs us to be asset-based – avoiding the temptation of spending too much energy on overwhelming deficits, especially those out of our control. It asks us to pivot our strategies and operations. What got us here won’t fully get us through the pandemic. And it calls organizations to move forward, step by step, working the challenge to find innovative solutions.
To get started in bolstering the functioning of their “ship,” organizations can work on a rapid three-step organizational assessment and change (OAC) process as a senior team or across all staff.
Step 1: Map your assets and strengths
“What have we got that’s good?” Begin with taking time as a team – say, over email or in a one-hour brainstorm session – to list out all of your organization’s assets and strengths. What is functioning well that we can build on going forward? This can be talented staff, video technology, strong partners, trust in the community, access to food, strong donor base – whatever it is, list it out and make sure it is comprehensive.
Step 2: Identify the one or two highest-priority gaps to fill that build on your strengths
“What do we need to land?” Once you know what is strong, it’s then time to identify the highest-priority gaps that, when filled, will help you build a bridge to get through the pandemic. First, ask yourself, What are the most critical gaps we need to fill in order make it through this period and land our ship? Second, map these gaps to your assets. Ask yourself, Given the assets we have, what are the one or two gaps we are best positioned to act on right now? Perhaps you need to do financial modeling to assess and rethink your business model. Maybe you need to strengthen your senior team communication and collaborative practices so you’re all in lock step. Whatever you choose, make sure to focus. As writer Heather Hart said, do one or two things well instead of ten things poorly.
Step 3: Pilot innovative changes – across all levels of staff – that fill these gaps immediately
“Let’s work the problem, people!” These changes are not going to be easy, and yet it is clear we must work differently and change the status quo for our organizations and our programming to make it through. I offer three pieces of advice in making these changes:
- Do not let perfect be the enemy of the good. Create team-wide expectations that failing forward is okay and we need to experiment, learn, and evolve at this time.
- Delegate to your team. Give team members of all levels autonomy to move things forward.
- Raise up processes that unleash teamwork. Eliminate or change inefficient processes that create silos or prevent staff from effectively working together.
We know how challenging this time period is, and the work ahead is daunting. Yet we see so many good things on the ships of organizations and communities. Together – with resilience, innovation, and action – we can make it through.
If you would like some free thought partnership on this or another issue you’re facing, reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.