Adaptive Capacity Labs

Troubled Times, Episode 2

Operators and Organizations Coping with Prolonged and Stressful Emergencies

We’ve made some observations over the past month about how tech organizations are adjusting their practices as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s still too early to synthesize these observations into what we might call “patterns” but some of them do appear to be taking shape:

  1. We are in the early stage of an unfolding catastrophe. People and organizations are mostly functioning. There is water and food, the phones work, the internet is still up, the lights are on, and so forth. Businesses are adapting to work from home. Individuals and organizations are behaving rather well considering.
  2. There is much uncertainty about the future and many individuals and organizations are working under substantial stress. The fact that national economies will survive is cold comfort to the companies and families faced with a non-trivial threat of collapse. The consequences will play out across the private and public sectors. The will reverberate for years and economic, political, and social damage will be widespread.
  3. We anticipate specific effects on individuals and organizations, particularly in the tech sector. This leads us to make the following predictions about the workplace, the workspace, and the people who inhabit them.
The individual and the organization

We predict that the pandemic will have profound effects on people and organizations. 

  1. Every person in every organization will experience multiple performance ‘hits’ over the next year. No one will be exempt. 
  2. The performance hits will manifest in different ways and at different times. The performance hits will be asynchronous. Some people and parts of the org will function well at the same time that others function poorly. Some people and some organizations will be partly or fully disabled.
  3. The pattern of reduced performance will be unpredictable. Rather than a monotonic downward trend followed by an upward one, performance of individuals and groups will be a bit like stock prices: yesterday doesn’t predict much about today and today does not predict much about tomorrow. Good periods and bad ones will arrive without much warning. This will make planning hard.
  4. The future will be heavily discounted because of uncertainty. This will lead decision makers to invest even more heavily in immediate results. Investment in longer term outcomes will be more difficult to sustain. 
  5. Social spaces will become more tightly coupled. The effects of events and strains at work will transfer to home and vice versa. The influence of work on home (and home on work!) is usually moderated via social conventions. As stress saps energy it becomes more difficult to maintain boundaries. 
  6. Recovery to “normal” performance will take much longer than many anticipate and the delay will be demoralizing for many who have ‘spent’ their adaptive capacity in anticipation of an early return to business as usual.
Incidents and reactions to them

We predict that the rate & character of incidents will change and that incident handling and post-incident processes will change. 

  1. Reactions to incidents will be erratic. What in the past were trivial events may evoke strong or even extreme reactions and quite large events may be muted.
  2. Performance during incidents is likely to be substantially worse than in the past. Incidents will last longer, be more difficult to resolve, and, in hindsight, reflect badly on the responders. This will be in part due to increased demand and changed operating conditions. It will also be in part due to reduced capacity in individuals and teams.
  3. Recovery from incidents will take longer than in the past. Recovery includes all the post-incident reactions, eg. reviews, decisions about countermeasures, and implementation of these. 
  4. Decisions about remedial actions will take on a strategic character. The reduced capacity of the organization to do work will heighten the concern for the use of resources, especially high value ones such as talented engineers. 
  5. Tribalism will increase. Past success in producing a “no blame” and “learning” environment will come under severe pressure as the strain accumulates. Groups that previously worked in harmony may be at odds. Willingness to share productivity across groups will be sapped by the loss of resources and decreased performance.

The relative maturity of the internet, capacity for rapid development and continuous deployment, and the hugely talented workforce in tech are valuable resources that seem almost tailor-made to address the immediate challenges. We have already seen dramatic shifts to entirely distributed workforces and rapid uptake of technologies and methods of working. We are indeed fortunate to have these resources available.  

  1. The next 6 to 12 months will be a period of intensive learning. The organizational buffeting that is in store for us will reveal much about how well and how poorly our systems can function. It is essential for survival to learn quickly what does and does not work, what new vulnerabilities are cropping up, and how to reshape the tech to meet these demands. Organizations most likely to survive are those that generate opportunities for learning throughout the distributed system. 
  2. Learning must be distributed and asynchronous. Things are changing faster than centralized management processes can function. Learing and applying learning must be distributed. This means moving authority and responsibility further towards the sharp end of the system.
  3. The changing character of incidents will put a premium on extracting as much from them as possible. Everything is changing — within the system and in the environment. To understand the consequences of these changes requires thorough, expert incident investigation and analysis and broad sharing of the results across the organization.

We are optimistic about the future and the roles that our many friends and colleagues and their organizations will play in meeting the challenges to come. We believe that you will not only survive, you will prevail.