Sean Donovan
Apr 1, 2020

Lessons from a lockdown (beyond getting out of your PJs)

TBWA's APAC president highlights six pieces of advice gleaned from the last several weeks—with help from Alex Ferguson, Yoda, Eeyore, John Maynard Keynes, and others.

Clockwise from top left: Keynes, Yoda, Donovan, Rohn, Eeyore, Ferguson
Clockwise from top left: Keynes, Yoda, Donovan, Rohn, Eeyore, Ferguson

Plenty has been written about best practises, tips and recommendations for the world’s largest remote working initiative, so I won’t write about yoga or not working in your pyjamas. Instead I wanted to share my experience from seeing our collective’s leaders across Asia in action over the past few months.

It’s important to start with the context. You’re all familiar with the genesis. Serious action against the spread of the virus started before Chinese New Year. In places like Greater China and Singapore the response was actioned through the lens of an unfolding human tragedy that required problem solving. Quickly.

Once the situation was understood, policy and execution focused on the disciplined application of logic and action. Thoughts of the economic impact were a problem to be addressed at some point in the future. By contrast, (generalisation acknowledged) the West’s response has been weeks of mild curiosity about a seemingly remote public-health crisis, followed by action that was eventually triggered not by the potential human tragedy, but by the unfolding economic one.

China bought the world a month, and the world wasted it.

Unsurprisingly, the actions of my company's leaders were rooted in this context. A lot of valuable lessons have emerged. Here are my top six.

1. "Your next morning is your most important morning. Do something."
—Sir Alex Ferguson

Speed to execution. This was never seen in Asia as a virus exclusive to the city of Wuhan or the province of Hubei, or China. This was understood from day one as a human virus that would not be confined by city, regional or national borders. Leaders acted quickly, knowing there is a disproportionate benefit to the earliest actions. Communication structures were established, protocols developed, restrictions defined and put in place and teammates informed concisely and regularly. Speed and tone engendered trust. And trust in leadership structures is key at moments like these.

2. “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”
John Maynard Keynes (supposedly)

Constant evaluation, agility and readjustment. The situation was, and is (see lesson 6), highly fluid. Some markets were able to draw on their experiences during the 2003/4 SARS outbreak. Some were able to draw on government or health expert positions. However, as days progressed it became apparent that past experience, assumptions and best guesses were increasingly limited. To draw on Harvard Business School historian and professor Nancy Koehn, leaders were “humbled in their understanding of what was beyond their control” but resolute in their actions as information became available. Plans were treated as organic, changing to accommodate new information as it became available, irrespective of how unpopular those changes might be.

3. “Do or do not. There is no try.”

Over-prepare. Because there is no 'over-prepared'. In a rapidly evolving situation, today’s 'over-prepared' is often tomorrow’s minimum. Leaders knew their responsibilities and in many instances had to do the unpopular or the excessive to protect others from what could come. Early preparation meant a significant headstart or less disruption when these actions had to be implemented to deal with the increasing gravity of the situation.

4. “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
—African proverb

Leverage your community, locally, regionally and globally. We have seen numerous examples of our teams coming together to create in the most unexpected ways. Celebrate, share and speak about this. Ask for help. We have seen the kindness and human heart of our collective. When help was asked for it came without fail in the most special ways. A young creative in Korea won’t know that a CEO in Germany searched pharmacies in Germany and Austria looking for masks to send. But hopefully she will ‘feel’ it somehow as part of the team.

5. “It never hurts to keep looking for sunshine.”

People want to be led. In exceptional circumstances, don’t underestimate the amount of stability and confidence leaders bring to the lives of their teams. In fact, in a world whipped into a social media-induced frenzy, they may just be the most stabilising influence, bringing more comfort and hope than we might imagine. Communicating with teams, creating as much structure and routine as possible and investing the time in creating a semblance of normality have been critical. But even more so was the role of looking ahead. This too shall pass. Leaders looking ahead, be it to pitches, productions or continuing with their innovation agendas, provide assurance and hope to their teams.

6. “How long should you try?... Until.”
—Jim Rohn

It’s human nature to want to look for and believe in the best. In Singapore there was a sense that the country was emerging from the worst of the pandemic and within arm’s reach of normality. Seven days later, it’s had its first deaths and its highest rates of positive diagnoses to date. Borders closed. When you think it’s over, go back to lesson 1 and start again.

There are many more lessons and there will be many more to come. Psychology has shown the propensity to change is directly proportionate to trauma. Hopefully we minimise the latter and implement the former.

Sean Donovan is president of TBWA Asia.

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