SHIFTing the Mindset During COVID-19: Part 1 “Execution”

Over the coming weeks, we’ll be featuring a new blog series called “SHIFTing the Mindset During COVID-19” from Eileen Brown, co-author of Shift: A New Mindset for Sustainable Execution. Released in Fall 2019, the book aims to help leaders “shift” into more sustainable and dynamic execution practices.

In the first installment of the series, Eileen Brown writes about “execution,” and examines how governments have been reacting to the current coronavirus pandemic and highlights the important of structure in executing their response plans effectively.


What a difference a day makes.

As with the World Wars, the Great Depression, and 9/11, once again things as we know them will never be the same. We have front row seats in the global stadium, bearing witness to the efforts to combat an invisible enemy.

Given our research on the topic of “execution,” summarized in the book Shift: A New Mindset for Sustainable Execution, I would like to share some of our thoughts around execution within the context of the current pandemic.

It is difficult for us as individuals not to form judgments as we watch different countries, and different levels of government within a single country, execute their plans. It is not my intent, however, to be an armchair critic or to become entangled in political cross-fire. Instead, we hope to illustrate how the ability to execute impacts every aspect of our lives, as individuals, organizations, and governments, especially during these unique times, and makes the difference between success and failure.

The foundation of our sustainable execution model relies on the orchestration of 3 levers: structure, rhythm, and awareness. In this first installment, I hope to illustrate the importance that structure plays in successful execution.


Living the Canadian model, and closely watching the American model, it is clear in both situations that clarity on jurisdictional structure and responsibilities is paramount to execution. In each case it took about 10 days for the federal, provincial/state, and municipal governments to overcome initial barriers and begin to “stay in their lanes” and orchestrate successfully. Media became more skilled at asking the right questions of the appropriate level of government. Citizens focused their expectations accordingly.


Each level of government grappled with the need to get the right folks to the podium each day to address the key issues for that day and build credibility with the media and citizens. Health Ministers, Finance Ministers, Safety & Security Ministers, Taskforce leaders, experts, and advisors (CDC, FDA, etc.) were needed to execute. Those who were clear in their mandate had an easier time making progress concurrently rather than sequentially. Dr. Fauci, the U.S. infectious disease expert, seemed to be everywhere at once – on the podium and on every news channel and doing prime time interviews. He knew his job and executed on many fronts. In turn, each Minister was dealing with their own resource barriers – whether pulling retired nurses to staff the help lines, building hospital capacity by cancelling elective procedures, setting up a procurement taskforce to chase and secure an adequate supply of face shields, masks, personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators, finding the administrative staff to deal with millions of unemployment claims, or finding the IT staff to create the newly required applications and to enable coronavirus analytics on the various governments’ websites. These are very strong examples of how the resource barrier is the first one that must be addressed. The sooner this can be accomplished the faster that execution can progress. Those countries that had this structure pre-defined and conducted drills for pandemic scenarios obviously had an advantage.


Once all resources are available, then a great deal of effort must go into the alignment of these resources. Execution is driven through cascading alignment: alignment at the global level (G7 countries) for managing borders; alignment at the country level (PM and the provinces and territories) for launching federal employment and small business benefits; alignment at the provincial level (Premiers and mayors) to close non-essential businesses and services; and alignment within each ministry to share the daily priorities, assign responsibilities, and identify issues. In Canada, daily cascading press conferences were established: Prime Minister at 11:15am, Premiers in the afternoon, and mayors in the evenings to allow for citizens to see the alignment of initiatives and efforts throughout the various levels of government.


I would suggest that this is where we are today. How do we integrate execution activities so that hospitals know when supplies that have been procured for them will be arriving? What are the criteria for allocation decisions on federal stockpiles of supplies? What is the process for deciding where the need is greatest? When should hospitals worry about their continuity of supply line – one month ahead, 10 days ahead, one week ahead? Where does the buck stop? You can’t afford to have medical staff distracted by the shrinking stack of masks because they do not have confidence in the level of integration of those supporting them.

As a supply chain executive for over 30 years, I have never heard the word “supply chain” in the news as it has been the last two weeks. In addition to the toilet paper supply issues, the need for governments to establish additional ventilator suppliers gained much attention in the U.S. People are asking, “Why can’t they make more ventilators now?” If a ventilator has 300 parts, it is not good enough to have 298 of those parts – production cannot begin until a supply line of all parts has been sourced. Also, as is common in electronics, testing is the gate in the manufacturing process. If there is a 6-hour test for each machine, there is no reason to build 10,000 a day if the facility can only test 6,000 a day. Testing often requires test fixtures that are custom-tooled and complex applications that are not ramped up as quickly as assembly operations. New designs may be faster to build but there is a trade-off as a new design results in more test failures as the wrinkles in the new design are ironed out. The ventilator example illustrates that resources, tools, and processes must be integrated to execute well to deliver on commitments. “Ventilating the silos” is the process that we use in our model to describe how to break down the independent silos to build a greater understanding and appreciation for the upstream and downstream dependencies.


From what I see, this barrier has not been fully addressed yet in the management of the pandemic. It has been interesting to watch the level of analytics progress on the websites of the World Health Organization (WHO), and all levels of government – federal, provincial, regional, and municipal. Every evening when I check the number of new cases and total cases for my city, region, province, two other key provinces, Canada, and the U.S., the numbers are not the same on ANY of the websites. And even on the same website, there have been changes in reporting methodologies midstream, in the name of “improvement.” There is no consistency between regional sites within the same province – some are very succinct, others are very poor. Why are they not adopting the best approach from other regions?

Most sources seem to agree that the number of new cases, total cases, recovered cases, community versus travel cases, mortalities, tests, and tests pending are key control indicators. Some have hospitalization numbers and ICU numbers. There is nothing yet, at least publicly shared, on the drug trials or the number of intubations, etc.

The backdrop of a pandemic readily highlights the barriers related to structure, because there really is very little structure dedicated to support it. There are no empty hospitals, or doctors and nurses standing idle on the off chance a pandemic might occur. The required structure must emerge from nothing, and return to nothing after it is over, which is why structure often has the most critical and difficult barriers to overcome.

Make sure to check in next week for part two, where Eileen discusses the concept of executional “rhythm,” and why organizations that lack rhythm do not have the ability to be proactive or pivot seamlessly to deal with unexpected demands during this pandemic.


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