It’s hard to know what to do when confronted with a crisis at scale where there are no modern precedents. The fear is palpable—for our loved ones, our colleagues, and for those in our communities. And the economic toll has never had a more human face in our lifetimes than the mass shutdowns and disruptions unfolding in real-time. And, yet, we must find the strength to persevere and the creativity to reinvent on-the-fly. Failure truly isn’t an option.

For those leading and managing, it’s time to change. The life-safety of our colleagues is of paramount importance in every sector. The economic safety of our employees is right there with the financial security of our customers. And, the road ahead isn’t clearly marked. We’ll have to navigate together.

The Playbook Pages are Blank

In most periods, we have templates for running our businesses. We have well-developed operating routines, and we have playbooks or strategies to help us pursue new opportunities and navigate changes. Except, now, the pages in the playbook are blank. We have to fill them in without a lot of guidance. I recommend using the erasable marker.

There’s a torrent of great content emerging on how to lead in this crisis. I love what I am seeing, reading, and hearing from so many great thinkers. What’s less clear is what to do once we’ve shifted our teams to their homes, armed them with new technology tools, and made sure we can still run core functions. More specifically, I’m concerned about how we harness the gray matter of our now distributed team members to solve problems in this crisis at a rapid pace.

Here are some ideas inspired by a host of leaders and contributors I’ve worked with over recent weeks. Their approaches give me hope that we can use the tools of management—tools that Dr. Gary Hamel calls the “technology of human accomplishment“—to work our way beyond this tragic and still unfolding crisis.

We Can Accelerate Innovation by Removing Barriers

Our tendency under stress is to shut down creative thinking for ourselves and with our groups. Fear is the tendency and fight-or-flight the typical responses in these situations. Instead, we need to treat problems as if we’re striving to fix the oxygen scrubbers on Apollo 13. We need extreme focus and the humility to consider all ideas.

Fighting a deadline and genuinely dealing with life or death issues, newly formed collections of remote workers must come together to push each other to think differently and creatively in pursuit of novel solutions. And instead of looking for complete solutions, they need to assemble ideas with metaphorical duct-tape and test them for fit and then keep improving.

To help innovation accelerate, we need extreme support from leadership, but without the command and control often prevalent in these types of situations. Leaders must help teams and firms focus, and then do everything possible to provide the needed support. Leadership today is now more than ever about clearing the way for smart people to do their best work.

Shift Strategy and Execution to Triage Mode and Revisit it Daily

It’s disorienting to move from well-established plans and well-honed operating routines to triage mode. Disorienting, but critical to let go of old routines and build a new cadence where the emphasis is on assessing outcomes, identifying changes, and adjusting actions.

Whatever your firm’s strategy before the pandemic, it doesn’t matter for the moment. Some firms are reinventing business models on the fly and others looking at must-do changes once this crisis eases—assuming and hoping it does.

Plan for the foreseeable future to create your strategy on a whiteboard. Keep those erasable markers handy.

People Want to Help—Let Them

While there are bad actors in every situation, having lived and led through prior crises in our society and economy, I’m always amazed at how people come together. Part of our approach to engaging with each other has already taken on a new-found level of caring. In our pre-pandemic workplace, it was easy to take our co-workers for granted. They were always there, sometimes annoying, and occasionally helpful. Now, they are a lifeline to a shared set of causes—personal and financial survival.

I’m hearing from managers and contributors about how important their virtual meetings, phone calls, and contacts are to them now. Make sure if you are managing remote employees now, to build in time for the personal content. Create forums to share experiences and concerns, and for people to offer each other help. They need this connection. Amazingly, I believe people will move closer together emotionally despite the physical distancing now mandated in this situation.

While it should go without saying, I still know organizational leaders who hold themselves responsible for coming up with all the ideas. It’s time to reframe your approach and accept your employees are your primary source of survival. If you are managing and leading, don’t be afraid to admit you need help.

The Bottom-Line for Now:

Those who study and categorize problems likely will describe our situation as a “wicked problem” where there is no single solution. They’re right. Instead, we need millions of small solutions one-at-a-time and quickly. Now more than ever, it’s time to put aside old forms and models of managing and let people do what they repeatedly prove to be great at—responding to a crisis and surviving.

Art's Signature