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Leading an Organization Through the Uncertainty of COVID-19: Part 2

March 6, 2020

This post was originally published by Stan McChrystal on LinkedIn

In our first article in this series, Stan McChrystal and I offered a brief history around the key factors that led to the creation of a highly effective, remote collaboration operating model within the Special Operations community. That transition took time, and involved many missteps and key learnings. Readers interested in a deeper analysis of the roadmap that McChrystal put into practice can find that in our 2017 book, One Mission: How Leaders Build a Team of Teams.

But given the urgency with which the COVID-19 outbreak is forcing remote collaboration as a new mandate, we will continue our abbreviated series today with a review of tools and structures that are critical to leading a large organization through a remote-communications model.  This is far from exhaustive, but enough to get you pointed in the right direction if you’re beginning to tackle this challenge.

1.     Start now: this will take more time than you’d like. Connecting people, even into the thousands, is just a flip of the switch with today’s technology. But productive connection that drives effective action is a bigger challenge. If you run a town-hall every quarter and teammates dial-in from around the world, don’t assume you’re prepared for true remote-work status. Large, top-down forums like most town-halls (even when leveraging remote-connectivity systems) are designed for transmission, not for real dialogue and emergence of insights.

2.     Analyze your IT tools – and home kits: You’ll need a proper IT backbone in place for remote work at scale, so do a quick analysis here. Most large organizations we work with have these systems at their fingertips (though most are underutilized), while some smaller organizations might not the needed software in place. But there are countless tools that are very accessible and cost effective for remote communication. At McChrystal, we leverage the Microsoft 365 stack for project work, knowledge management, scheduling, and remote communication (both video and text) through the Teams platform. But smaller organizations can quickly assess what they have in place, and find a range of products that are affordable and effective. Don’t assume your people have what they need at home. Ask your managers to run a quick survey of home-level readiness of your employees. Do your people have sufficient home bandwidth to support video communication? Are your remote security protocols updated? Are your people familiar and comfortable with this model?

3.     Practice! Start running meetings that would normally be face-to-face through a remote platform to work out the bugs. You can do this from inside the same building – just separate yourselves and see if the systems are up and running. (In tomorrow’s piece, we’ll discuss best practices and protocol for remote interaction).  Ensure you’re assessing both your video/audio capabilities, and your real-time chat platforms. We’ll discuss tomorrow how side-conversations over a chat-platform (during a video conference) allow individuals to connect point-to-point and clarify issues, deepen understanding, and maintain person-to-person connectivity.

4.     Map your operating rhythm: Our time in a traditional office space are filled with scheduled meetings, ad hoc meetings, and chance encounters throughout the day. It’s easy to underestimate how much productivity comes from those sidebar discussions, quick gatherings in someone’s office, or a chat around the lunch table. Start now looking at the Operating Rhythm of your organization.

5.     Big to small: As you consider the right mix of standing, remote meetings – start big and work your way down. People in your organization will want a place to go to get a single picture of the organization, market, etc from their leaders, but also a forum where they can share up what they’re seeing and hearing on the ground.  As a thought experiment, imagine the several hundred folks (or more) that you might pull into your quarterly town-hall. What if you started and finished each work week, during purely remote conditions, with all of those team members dialed into a single communication forum? Your remote employees would know, at a minimum, that every 3-4 days they would hear from their leadership, connect with peers across the enterprise, and have a forum to share ground level insights or clarify key issues.

Once the senior-most level of your organization establishes the operating rhythm with which it will communicate broadly with the company, leaders one level down can decide where and how they’ll build the necessary supporting communications forums with their teams. This methodology can cascade quickly down to front-line managers and a natural operating rhythm will start to emerge.

But don’t just map your existing outlook calendar into an operating rhythm.  Your calendar is likely more dependent on the “meeting after the meeting” than you’d assume, and those physical encounters will disappear in a remote situation.

By starting with high-inclusivity at the very top, combined with leaders who are sharing real insights and encouraging dialogue from the bottom up, you’ll be amazed at how much useful information will be available quickly to large numbers in your organization. The more aggressive senior leaders are willing to be with inclusion and transparency, the more you can avoid meeting after meeting down into the organization.

6.     Create agendas:  This sounds painfully obvious, but structured agendas are more important than ever in a remote environment.  Our suggestion is to write your angenda in excel-format.  From left to right, the key columns should be: time (minute by minute), topic, briefer (to include title and contact information), and links to key read-ahead materials.  In that way, you’re agenda is doubling as a knowledge management tool for future reference.

Hang these agendas in the calendar invites – something that is easy to overlook and underestimate.  This gives your teammates another KM tool – and ability to look forward and backwards at topics discussed over time.

Do a quick review after each meeting on the effectiveness of the agenda.  As dynamic as most business must be these days, if your agenda isn’t in a state of constant improvement, you’re probably falling behind in some way.

7.     Establish controllers: in a remote meeting, you need a single person who is responsible for keeping the group on track.  This should not be the person overseeing the meeting, but a support position that keeps introduces the intent of the meeting, keeps it on time and heading by gently reading teammates when things are running over time or getting off heading, and who captures the key points of each topic/discussion.

The controller should quickly clean up the meeting notes, capture any due-outs, and distribute meeting notes broadly to all in attendance.  This is yet another knowledge management tool, and the due-out list (where applicable) should be the first thing you start with during the next iteration of that forum.  As opposed to a face-to-face environment, where folks are constantly bumping into one another and getting quick updates on project and deal status, a remote system requires great discipline to maintain awareness and accountability.  A forum-controller can quickly fill this void.

This is a very high level start point, but we hope it will serve as a baseline for how you can start to structure and execute these types of remote forums.  Tomorrow, we will publish a quick look at best practices and behavior norms during these types of forums.

Please continue to send any thoughts or questions, and share best practices.

Link to First Article:

McChrystal Website:

Stan McChrystal Biography:

Chris Fussell Biography:

About the Author
Stan McChrystal, CoFounder of McChrystal Group


More Resources:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5