The immediate focus of most companies is shifting from Long Term to Short Term, and from Innovation and Growth to Cost Control and Operational Efficiency. Many Boards and CEO’s, as they should, are assessing the “people at the wheel” across divisions or functions trying to determine fit for the current environment. Unfortunately, some think this means automatically replacing “visionaries,” “dreamers,” or “innovators,” with “operators.” Without careful consideration, most will regret that decision in the long term. Just like every other classification, operators exist on a continuum and not all are suitable for leading in every crisis.

I have been an operator myself, so it’s a question I get asked all the time in my executive, technology, and operations consulting role at Ideasphere; “How do we separate the operators who can lead in a crisis, from the operators who can only execute or administer in the engine room?”

Recently, I had this conversation with a client, a CEO of a large healthcare organization, and thought it may be useful to share. It’s not a complete answer, but if you are a board, private equity firm, or a CEO of a multi-division company, it’s a start on how to assess your operators for leadership roles in this crisis.

One characteristic of a good operators is that they run quickly and efficiently through their “OODA Loop.” Observe, Orient, Decide, Act is the fundamental framework behind the process any human (or AI for that matter) uses to make decisions before taking action. Barring blind luck, skip a step, and decisions are highly likely to not have the intended effect; Run through the loop only once, or too slow, and decisions are not reflective of the current conditions. A smaller group, the great operators, can quickly run multiple OODA loops in parallel while managing their inter-dependencies. However, just because they are a good, or maybe even great, operator, it’s not a guarantee they will bring the ship to port once the storm is over.

In a crisis, heaven help the operator whose ability to process an OODA loop is limited to a narrow function or area of expertise; Same for one who can’t adapt to, or learn fast enough about, the new environment to become at least appropriately competent.

Before you hand over the wheel, consider whether or not they will need to, how, and how fast the operator will move through the 4 levels of competence relevant to their new role in a crisis. Each stage of an OODA loop relies on the operator’s level of competency in that particular environment, or their ability/capacity to move quickly through all four of them before engaging their OODA loop and leading.

Unconsciously Incompetent (UI – I don’t know what I don’t know),
Consciously Incompetent (CI – I know what I don’t know),
Consciously Competent (CC – I know what I need to know but have to think about it) and
Unconsciously Competent (UC – I know what I need to know and don’t need to think about it)

Why does the level of Competence matter? Because a UI operator, doesn’t have the knowledge and competence to understand what they are observing. Or they may observe the wrong things and not observe the critical things. Or even if by luck they observe the right things, they will not know what it means and won’t be able to orient themselves, resulting in the decisions that are off mark, and actions most likely a waste of time. And even a CI or CC operator, will take time to figure out what to observe, recognize what is relevant information, and ignore the noise, understand what is being observed to properly orient themselves. And that will introduce delays in the decision process, which may be OK in a slow moving crisis, but not in a rapidly changing situation.

And it gets worse if the operator is UI but runs through an OODA loop fast, because that what made them a good operator in the first place, but is the cliché who makes “any decision because it’s better than no decision.” Speed in taking actions will be based on poor decisions made in the wrong context because of mis-understanding of what is going on and will have the wrong impact.

Not every operator assigned to a crisis leadership role needs to be at the Unconsciously Competent level prior to the assignment, but they at least need to be willing and capable to become at least Consciously Competent prior to turning the wheel.

Of course all the above it’s just a semi-scientific way to paraphrase something a mentor of mine told me years ago:

In times of crisis, don’t empower dummies, especially intelligent ones; they may get you through the crisis but they’ll leave more damage behind for you to clean up later.

I serve as a board member for The Tampa Bay Wave and The Lowth Entrepreneurship Center at the University of Tampa. The advice shared in this article is a preview to the council I provide to entrepreneurs, founders, and clients I’ve worked with over the past three decades. Feel free to contact me with any additional questions or business inquiries.