Every single organization that has survived the pandemic so far went into some sort of crisis management mode. As the penalties for getting things wrong increased, senior leadership tightened the reigns and thought through choices more deliberately. While that was the right approach, those leaders now need to relax some of the reigns, and let others make more decisions, effectively lowering the waterline and moving more things back to guidelines from temporary directives.

Not all risks are created equal. The Gore company used to look at risks and threats using a water-line analogy. Something that damages things above the waterline would be a minor risk. Something that puts a hole in the boat below the waterline and can sink the boat (or organization) is major.

The pandemic raised the waterline for all, turning risks that had been minor into major risks capable of sinking organizations.

The best leadership teams went into crisis management mode the fastest to manage safety, reputation, and finances – in that order. They issued directives to keep their people and customers safe. They took control over more internal and external communication to mitigate reputational risks. They made more of the financial decisions to ensure survival.

While it was the right thing to do, those leadership teams now need to manage their exits from crisis management mode in a way that helps others re-engage. One of the main barriers is going to be the confusion between temporary directives and permanent policies.


Pulling some definitions from my earlier article on balancing policies and guidelines:

  • POLICY: A mandatory, definite course or method of action that all must follow.
  • GUIDELINE: A preferred course or method of action that all should generally follow.
  • PRINCIPLE: A way of thinking about actions.
  • FRAMEWORK: A basic supporting part or structure upon which to build or act.
  • PROCESS: A series of actions that produce something or that lead to a particular result.

It’s impossible for someone to know whether a new mandatory, definite course or method of action that all must follow is a new, permanent policy or temporary directive. And, a lot of leadership teams didn’t know which those were when they were issued.

In either case, they are disabling by definition. They reduce degrees of freedom so people do what they are told to do, directed to do.

This is why the US Navy has more policies and tighter controls than does the US Army. Mistakes on a navy ship at sea can sink the boat. Mistakes in a tank can wreck the tank, but not the whole battalion. Command and control reduces short-term risk, and opportunities for innovation.

Innovation springs from enablement. This is why it’s so important for leadership teams to loosen the reigns as soon as practical.


Think in terms of three steps:

1) Clarify where you are and how you got there.

Make sure people know which directives were, indeed, temporary directives instead of new, permanent policies. Explain how the pandemic raised the waterline between major and minor risks and how you acted to manage that new level of risk. Explain how the waterline is now going down allowing for these changes.


2) Explicitly remove or change out some things and explicitly leave others in place.

You may choose to make some of your temporary directives permanent. The world has changed. There is no going back to the way things were. It’s worth rethinking your approach.

Once you’ve done that, it will be easier for people to understand what’s changing if they understand what’s not changing as well.

Understand this won’t be as easy as sending out a brief memo. People have been living with these directives for long enough that inertia has set in. It will be easier for some to keep doing things they way they’ve been doing them than to change again. Some find it easier to be told what to do.


3) Follow through to ensure the changes flow through the system

Know that change is a process itself and undoing change is a process. Just as you need change management to make changes stick, you need unchanged management to undo them.

Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #790) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan.

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