A Recipe for Thriving in Uncertain Times

The 1997 book Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, by Jon Krakauer, chronicled the tragic day when eight people died trying to make the summit. The tragedy has been studied by climbers, researchers, and business analysts alike. In the 2011 book Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck—Why Some Thrive Despite them All, Jim Collins and co-author Morten T. Hansen use the event to illustrate why some organizations thrive through adversity—a crucial lesson for leaders today. The book takes a pairs approach to contrast decision-making behaviors, in this case, those made by expedition groups trying to summit with those of an IMAX team filming on the mountain. The authors suggest that what makes some organizations successful are not different circumstances, but rather a set of behaviors that allow them to prevail:
  • Fanatic Discipline: extreme consistency of action, particularly in times of crisis or uncertainty
  • Empirical Creativity: creative moves from a sound empirical base
  • Productive Paranoia: attention to threats and changes especially when things are going well. That is, an understanding of what works, understanding why it works, grasping when to change, and knowing when not to.
Today, amid a global pandemic, school leaders and trustees may feel like they are trying to make the summit in a raging snowstorm, with little to guide them. Collins and Hansen’s insights may just be the road map we need to make it through the current crisis and prepare for the next. As the authors state, “The probability of any particular black swan event might be less than 1%, but the probability that some black swan event will happen is close to 100%; it’s just that you can’t predict what it’ll be or when it’ll come. It’s what you do before the storm comes that matters most.”

Behaviors for Uncertain Times in Action

Let’s step back and explore the decisions each group made before and on that fateful day on the mountain:
  • The expeditioners leading climbers up the mountain brought oxygen and supplies for only one attempt at the summit, while the IMAX team brought enough oxygen for multiple attempts and supplies to last them for weeks. The difference here was productive paranoia—the IMAX team had planned for a variety of events that could keep them from their goal.
  • When the IMAX team leader saw a crowd of climbers coming up the mountain and signs of bad weather despite good conditions in the moment, he led his team down the mountain, while the expeditioners pushed forward. Employing fanatic discipline, he knew what conditions would contribute to success and did not stray from his playbook.
  • As weather conditions deteriorated on the mountain, the expedition leaders did not follow their timing and turnaround protocols. In this case, the expedition leaders had a playbook but did not follow it. Collins and Hansen describe fanatic discipline as part of the 20-mile march, a key concept in the book. The 20-mile march theory contends that organizations that prevail in uncertainty impose a rigorous performance mark, which they hit with consistency. It’s akin to hiking across the United States 20 miles a day––there may be days when you can easily hike more than 20 miles, but, if you do, you may become exhausted and unable to keep up the pace the following day. You don’t stray from that marker even though good conditions may suggest you hike longer. In this case, that decision to stray had deadly consequences.
You may question the value of emphasizing preplanning and discipline protocols in the midst of a pandemic. Aren’t we too late for that? The reality is that we are still at the beginning of this crisis and have many decisions to make along the way that can influence how we come out on the other side.

Employing the Behaviors Through Scenario Planning

Recently, NAIS created “Education Unknown: A Guide to Scenario Planning for Independent Schools in the Age of COVID-19,” which identifies four scenarios that could play out over the coming months and how each could impact independent schools.

Although any one of the scenarios is unlikely to occur exactly as described, taken together, they provide the breadth of the conditions we may face as we make our way through the next few years. These “what-if” scenarios can help us to develop our own playbook for uncertain times and put into practice the behaviors outlined in Great by Choice. To assist, the book authors offer the following step-by-step process:
  1. Make a list of the major successes your school has achieved over the years.
  2. Make another list of disappointments or failures that your school has endured.
  3. Now, list those practices that correlate with the successes but not the disappointments.
  4. Now, do the opposite. Make a list of practices that correlate with the disappointments but not the successes.
  5. Which of these practices do you think can endure, that is, last decades, and apply across a wide range of circumstances? Which of these practices will serve you best in each of the NAIS scenarios?
  6. Now identify why you think these practices work?
  7. Based on the above, write your SMaC (Specific, Methodical, and Consistent) recipe; that is, eight to 10 principles that reinforce each other as a coherent system to drive your best results.
 To give you some food for thought, below is Southwest Airlines’ SMaC for its early years, as detailed in the book:
  1. Remain an airline for short distances.
  2. Use the Boeing 737 as primary plane for 10–12 years.
  3. Ensure higher occupation of the plane and take fast turns. In most cases within 10 minutes.
  4. The passenger is our No. 1 product. Do not take on airfreight or mail, only small packages with a high profitability and low handling costs.
  5. Continue to ask low rates and offer high service.
  6. No catering companies.
  7. No reselling of tickets.
  8. Keep Texas as the first priority.
  9. Retain the family feeling in the services and create a fun atmosphere. We are proud of our employees.
  10.  Keep it simple.

The Board’s Role in Uncertain Times

In this time of crisis and uncertainty, the board must ensure that it is engaging in these types of decision-making behaviors. Dick Chait, co-author of Governance as Leadership: Reframing the Work of Nonprofit Boards and one of the foremost thinkers on nonprofit governance, recently offered the following tips in an NAIS Trustee Table podcast:
  • Work with discipline—both individually and collectively. Crisis is a time for collective deliberation, consensus-driven decisions, and the discipline to speak with a single voice, especially in the face of unpopular or controversial decisions.
  • Focus simultaneously on short- and long-term decisions. Boards should agree on what to decide collectively and get the questions right in the near-term while also thinking about generative questions for the long-term—those all-important “what-if” questions. 
  • Set aside the conventional committee structure for the next nine to 12 months and instead organize the board into two teams. One would work with the administration on urgent fiduciary issues and be consultants, not managers. The second team would have a long-term focus, serving like a think tank to discern and frame generative questions. These two teams would ensure that board structure aligns with both short- and long-term challenges. 
Finally, Chait suggests that the board needs to hold the tension between continuity and transformation, saying, “Insight resides at the intersection of paradoxes. Schools need to have the conversation on whether they want school to be the same as before the crisis. If not, what do they hope to change? If they hope to change, what is the theory of change? How do they think change happens? How did the school culture and values fare during the crisis? Have disruptions disclosed better ways to educate? Or more efficient ways to operate?”
Collins and Hansen also underscore holding the tensions of discipline and creativity to guide behavior, suggesting that those organizations that navigate these tensions well have shown that “they don’t merely react; they create. They don’t merely survive; they prevail. They don’t merely succeed; they thrive.”
Independent schools have the opportunity to make an important choice today. I believe they will get to work and make the decision to be great by choice.
Picture of NAIS.Models.AuthorPreviewViewModel.
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is a former president of NAIS.