How to lead in times of crisis, remote working

One of the only constants in life is change. One of the good changes is that physical meetings are back. In a month I hope to see many of you at this year’s DIA Medical Information and Communications conference in Barcelona where I will be co-chairing the opening sessions on change management in practice and innovating medical information.

Today’s newsletter topics:
– Change management learnings from how governments handle COVID and the energy crisis
– Why remote working is here to stay
– How to lead in times of crisis
– The innovation challenge

Change Management Learnings from how Governments Handle COVID and the Energy Crisis

Although we know that everything changes, the seasons, our life stages, the political landscape etc., we tend to stick with what we know. What is known feels safe. Even if it is not. Consequently, individuals managing change programs are often challenged with the sentence, “We have been doing it this way for years, and it has worked”. My response to this used to be, “We used to use a horse and cart, we used to wash clothes by hand etc. but none of us want to go back to the old way of doing things”. Perhaps in the face of the energy crisis in Europe I will need to re-evaluate this opinion.

Since 2020 we have been exposed to many changes that we have had no control over. How we interact socially, where we work, whether we can leave our homes to exercise, access restaurants etc. Just as we had grown accustomed to the ever-shifting landscape of COVID management strategies we are exposed to new changes. News coverage of COVID infection rates has been replaced by stories on global warming, and recommendations on how to reduce energy consumption and stay warm.

According to the newspaper, the NZZ on Sunday, Simonetta Sommaruga, the Head of the Swiss Federal Department of Transport, Communications and Energy recommends wearing woollen socks to bed, stocking up on jumpers and spending time cuddling your loved ones. Perhaps with time, the clock will be turned back further, and we will start sharing our living space with livestock as we once did.

For me there are three major insights for change leaders from how governments managed the pandemic and are now managing the energy crisis.

Insight 1: Strive for one truth: During the pandemic, political considerations influenced government pandemic guidelines more than science did. Consequently, there were multiple truths. Multiple truths lead to confusion and highlight a lack of leadership.

This leads to my first insight: Consistent messaging and clarity of objective is key for transformation programme success. When you are running a change programme, ensure you have a clear business objective that is driving the goals of the programme globally. Communicate this consistently to all stakeholders.

Insight 2; Call a spade a spade: During the pandemic it would have been relatively simple to apply a rigorous scientific framework to help understand the virus. This was not done. Again, this led to mistrust and the perception that the absence of a rigorous scientific framework was positive proof that governments were trying to hide relevant data regarding the benefit/risk of mRNA vaccinations. I believe that the reason data was not collected was, sadly, a result of a lack of coordination, forward thinking, and competent planning, not a result of stealth. As the necessity to prospectively collect data is obvious to anyone who is medically or scientifically trained, I don’t however, believe governments can be pardoned for this failing.

This leads to my second insight: Don’t whitewash. Sometimes things go wrong. Sometimes critical opportunities are missed. Perhaps the environment changed, perhaps something critical was not factored in, either way, be transparent when things go wrong. A key performance indicator for large transformation efforts is the trust teams place in the leaders. If there is no trust projects tend to fail.

Insight 3: Envision multiple scenarios and have back-up plans: Like most European countries, Switzerland generates some of the energy it needs and imports the rest. A number of years ago the decision was taken to phase out nuclear power and to replace it with renewable energy sources, while continuing to import energy, mainly from France and as a result, mainly nuclear. Considering the political stability in Europe in the last decades this seemed reasonable. However, the war in the Ukraine and the sanctions against Russia linked to that war, means energy is suddenly scarce. The Swiss government’s B plan is to recommend we reduce the energy we consume, wear warm socks and cuddle more.

This leads to my third insight: Plan ahead using the data you have, envision multiple potential scenarios, have B plans in place for all of them, that way, if the environment you are in changes, you have more to offer than the recommendation to wear woolly socks.

In addition, whether living through changes imposed upon us during a pandemic or managing the anxiety that accompanies reorganisations at work, the Chinese proverb, “When the wind blows, some build walls, while others build windmills” serves well. Fighting change is much harder than finding a way to benefit from it, to live with it, to grow in it.

I’ll be exploring change management in more depth at the upcoming DIA Medical Information and Communications meeting in Barcelona, where I will be co-chairing a session on the practice of change management with Monica Rojo-Abril, Medical Information Officer at Grünenthal. I hope to see you there.

Why Remote Working is Here to Stay

The pandemic taught us how much is possible when we have no choice. Years ago, I remember finding a memo that had been printed out, I assume, on the wrong printer. The memo said, “We absolutely cannot let our staff work from home, because we won’t be able to ensure they are doing any work”. The pandemic demonstrated that this was wrong. We used to think that conferences and meetings could not effectively be held remotely. During the pandemic we learned that this was wrong too. While companies are trying to get employees back into the office, I suspect that as prices for electricity and fuel increase dramatically, countries ration energy use and the rising cost of living impacts many people, companies will need to continue to support remote working.

How to Lead in Times of Crisis

According to an article on there are some key guidelines to being effective as a leader during a crisis. I summarize the key points below, with some considerations added:

  1. Think first: take the time to reflect on a position before providing direction.
  2. Collaborate with your teams to identify different options: the more minds you apply to a problem, the better your solution will be.
  3. Act decisively: discuss all options, but remember you are accountable for the decisions you take. When you have decided on the course of action, share the decision with your teams and act rapidly.
  4. Remain positive without sugar-coating – be honest, be frank. Talk about what you can do, not what has been lost. Communicate that you are confident you will weather the storm together.
  5. Be humble and courageous: Crisis situations, as witnessed during the pandemic, require fast decisions, based on the data that is available to you at the time. When you make a mistake, own it, ideally before everyone has heard about it. Compromise on plans not principles.

You can read the full article here

The Innovation Challenge

Real innovation is hard. Many years ago, I was working on a research project. As we wrote the publication and submitted it for review, my manager said “Isabelle, nobody has ever published on this before, what happens if we are wrong?”. I answered, “That’s the whole point of research, you do the experiments in triplicate, you check your data, and then you put it out into the world for others to build on, or to refute”. I was excited because I had discovered something new and potentially ground-breaking, and I couldn’t wait to find out whether or not I was right. My manager was mainly concerned that he might look foolish.

Innovation is much easier to achieve when:

  • you have little to lose;
  • you are in a flexible environment;
  • business is going well; and
  • the political environment is stable.

With true innovation, I mean radically doing things differently to how they have been done in the past.

The pharmaceutical industry is not famous for rapidly adopting new solutions to old problems, even when those new solutions make a lot of sense. I am thinking about structured data bases across an entire company as an example here.

Given that fostering innovative research is hard in huge global pharma companies, pharma giants in recent years have started to expand their portfolio by purchasing innovative start-ups, or by separating out their R&D unit to perform early-stage research with limited influence from the commercial business on early R&D decisions.

In the current environment I think it is realistic to expect more barriers to innovation, as budgets are restricted, workforces are reorganized and companies stick to the tried and true in an effort to defend rather than to expand. However, just because something is hard, doesn’t mean it cannot be done. How you pitch your innovative project is key, especially now.

I’ll be discussing how to innovate medical information at the DIA meeting in Barcelona., where I will co-chair a session with Peter Brodbin, Director of Medical Information Effectiveness, Pfizer. You can find the meeting agenda here.

I hope my blog provides you with some useful insights and, as ever, I look forward to hearing your thoughts. And if you have a challenging project or would like to discuss coaching to help you achieve that next level, please reach out for an informal chat.

Very best wishes

Isabelle C. Widmer

Photo by Ella Ivanescu on Unsplash