On Responding (Rather Than Reacting) to Crisis

by Evan Leybourn, June 19, 2020


Week by week, day by day, then hour by hour. On the week of the 9th of March everything changed. And it changed fast. That week I was in New York for the Business Agility Conference and I watched COVID-19 spread quickly through the state, but fear spread faster.

I want to share our experiences as a community organisation and our response - specifically in the context of running a major conference at the exact moment everything changed.

But let me go back a bit. Two weeks prior, America recorded its first case of COVID-19. Everyone expected it and in some ways we were surprised it took so long. We had already seen the impact on our community in China and Italy. Our Hong Kong and greater China communities were on lockdown and moving all their community events online. Those who had bought tickets to attend the conference in New York, we had already fully refunded. At the time this seems prudent and fair. After all, it wasn't their fault they couldn't travel.

And then, it hit America.

When the first case was recorded on the West Coast, three companies immediately banned all travel for their staff - and we issued our first US refunds. It was, of course, the right decision--but at the time, it certainly seemed like an overreaction. The emails we received were apologetic in tone; at this time, most folks seemed like they, too, believed their companies were overreacting.

We were just under two weeks away from our flagship conference, and reaching the point when we would expect the greatest number of registrations. For those who don't know, conference registrations sit on a very predictable exponential curve and we have seen the same curve every year for every conference we have run. The majority of registrations come in the final two or three weeks leading up to the date of the event.

This time, the curve flipped and the cancellations rolled in at an exponential rate. Companies banned travel and left registered attendees with no choice but to cancel their trip to New York City. We crafted an email announcing that we would still hold the conference in-person. It would be a smaller affair than originally planned, certainly; but at this point, we had little reason to cancel the event. There were no stay-at-home orders in the United States yet and the CDC continued to report the overall risk as low. Plus, we still had nearly 250 attendees registered and excited for the conference.

As the day grew closer for my flight to the United States, the news grew more dire. The cancellations kept coming.

And this is where I want to make the distinction between reacting and responding. In both cases, a decision is made. The difference is the decision horizon. Companies make decisions every minute of every day and those decisions are shaped by the context at the time. In a time of crisis, such as COVID-19, new information appears so quickly that the context changes day-to-day. By the time of our conference, it was almost minute-to-minute.

Companies who have developed a culture where strategic decisions can be made quickly, and with limited information, are those that are best placed to respond to crisis. Those companies who do not have this strategic agility muscle memory merely respond to each change. Making unconnected decisions that (usually) start to diverge from their strategic goals fairly quickly.

In our case, we always kept our strategic north star. We are a research organisation and a community organisation. How could we best serve (and delight) our members and the broader community.

Thus, we were faced with a challenge. Governments across the world were alerting citizens that the risk was low for certain populations and higher for others. A quarantine hardly seemed feasible at the time. Shutting down national borders seemed impossible. However, we also needed to honor the safety of our attendees and our community--our first priority at any event--especially for those who might be in the at-risk group, according to the CDC. In addition, we were faced with the economic reality of venue deposits, catering, and all of the logistics that go into planning an event in Manhattan.

And so we responded. We worked closely with one of our founding members, ICAgile, to develop a parallel virtual conference in less than 1 week. (And with nearly 200 people taking part in the virtual conference, it was a great success). For those in person, we banned handshakes and hugs (at the time a response that seemed excessive to many, but could have been more given the social distancing that was put in place following week). We brought in nearly 50 bottles of hand-sanitizer from Canada (as we couldn’t find any hand-sanitizer in the US at all - we tried stores in 6 different states). These were just some of the decisions we made ahead of the conference.

On the 11th of March, 200 people joined us in NYC and fully 100-150 people joined us virtually. And that’s when everything truly went to hell. 3 hours after the conference started, the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic. NYC started reporting hundreds (then thousands) more cases. The US government announced border closures and flight restrictions. I never thought I would need to stand on stage in front of hundreds of people and announce a pandemic order was in effect. And yet, I am proud of how our community responded (rather than reacting). Looking at flight cancellations and border restrictions, our European delegates left shortly after the announcement. Many took the opportunity to join the virtual conference the following day.

And so we responded. Working with the speakers and delegates, we shifted programme timing to allow people to make new flights and accommodate both in-person and virtual speakers. We cancelled and fully refunded students for the Friday workshops.

While our conference was certainly different than I imagined, I am proud of how our entire community rallied around. The conference organisers, speakers, and facilitators all went above and beyond to ensure a safe environment that respected peoples time, investment, and safety. In turn, everyone respected the hard decisions that we made.

If anyone asks me what responding (not reacting) to change looks like, I will tell them it looks like respect and hard work.