Straight to ‘Yes’

With little to lose, corporate heads are finally making big moves that had stalled for years.

Shutting down a large office was the kind of decision that this company might have taken years to make—reviewing costs, talent relocations, and a host of other feasibility studies. Now, the decision itself might take … days.

Call it the Nike approach to decision-making: just do it. The rapid spread of the coronavirus, and the financial damage it is inflicting on companies, means that leaders have gotten used to some very painful moves, fast. But on the flip side, experts say, it has also given CEOs and other leaders the rare freedom to incorporate new strategies or products they’ve been dreaming about for years—but couldn’t break the usual business bureaucracy to make it happen. “It’s giving leaders a reason to change,” says Korn Ferry CEO Gary Burnison.

Even before the crisis, digital disruption created an environment where survival hinged on constant change and reinvention. Too often, however, bureaucracy, low risk tolerance, lack of innovation, or other cultural issues prevented companies from moving with the speed and agility needed to transform. Now, leaders are operating in “try anything” mode, says David Vied, global sector leader for medical devices and diagnostics at Korn Ferry. Whether it’s as simple as closing an office or as complex as changing supply chains or business models, everything is on the table.

“Consensus decision-making has gone from 12 people needing to say yes to something to one person with a good idea grabbing 11 others to follow along,” says Vied. He says this “straight to yes” approach that develops in a crisis can carry over to how decisions are made when the business environment stabilizes, and “that’s a good thing.”

While efficiency is always better than bureaucracy, business management consultant Mark Nevins says fast decisions always carry a risk. “The decision could be right, but that doesn’t guarantee a good outcome or that people will be behind you,” he says. More important than efficiency, says Nevins, the founder of Nevins Consulting, is accuracy—and that requires the person with the authority to make a move to have a holistic understanding of the entire business and the right data to inform.

“The companies that do the best in a crisis and coming out of one are those whose leaders have a clear set of goals, understand their individual role in achieving those goals, and can challenge each other with different viewpoints to get to the best decision,” says Nevins.

Put another way, in the pre-COVID world, running an agile, efficient organization was a performance issue. In the post-COVID world, it is a survival issue. The companies that will come out of this crisis stronger, says Burnison, are the ones with leaders who are constantly disrupting themselves. “You can only change as fast as your culture lets you,” he says.