Scenario Planning, Clarity in Communications & Thinking like Del Boy
20th May by Ruth Owen
Ruth Owen is the Chief Executive of Whizz-Kidz, a charity that all of us at AAW admire very much.
A wheelchair user from the age of seven, Ruth believes passionately in the importance of independent mobility in a disabled child’s life.
Ruth has led Whizz-Kidz to become the largest provider of powered and light weight manual wheelchairs for disabled children outside of the NHS and was awarded an OBE in 2012 in recognition of her services for disabled children and young people nationally.
When the world started to fall apart in March this year, Ruth and her team were perhaps a little more prepared than others. Rather prophetically, in November 2019, the organisation used a coronavirus type illness (with Covid-19 just starting to emerge in China) as a focus for an Away Day team building scenario. Taking lessons learnt from that day in November and adding to this clear and forward-thinking processes, she talks about how she and her team have navigated the last few months.
It was a cold, dull November day and my senior leadership team were gathered for our annual contingency planning meeting. We do them every year facilitated by a corporate partner as part of their pro-bono support. It isn’t exactly the highlight of the year and in 2019 getting some of the SLT team into the room had taken both carrot and stick. As always, some were eager as a beaver to role play, for others their eyes were firmly fixed on either the clock or the door! But they were all there.
2019’s session – and this is utterly true – began. “A flu like illness has begun to sweep China killing hundreds, its item 3 on the news. What do you do?” By the end of the 2 hour session a quarter of the population were dead or dying and it’s fair to say there hadn’t been many laughs. Little did we know as we filed out of the Board Room last November that the lessons we had learnt that day would be tested quite so soon.
When Covid-19 began to break our biggest recall from November was – communication. In a situation where you have little control, it is your communication that is key. Immediately, we realised that life in the UK was likely to be up-ended, every piece of communication which so much as mentioned Covid-19 came from me and was written by our small (and brand new!) Communications Team. One member of the team working directly with the Director wrote or cleared everything from all staff communications, to emails to supporters, to statements on the website. Everything. No exceptions.
The reason for such draconian action was obviously to ensure all the messages carried the right messages but it was also to ensure that we could control the mood, the timing and the order that information came out. The Director showing his political background instituted something called “write round” where any key piece of messaging was circulated first to SMT before coming to me to issue. When the words “write around” appeared on an email SMT knew they had to action it immediately.
So did all this delay things? No – everything was cleared within, at most, two hours. Communication was our priority and as a leadership team we gave it our attention.
We were also careful not to keep banging on about the situation once we had everyone working from home with the equipment we needed. We deliberately moved the messaging onto a “business as, not quite, usual” footing as soon as the initial shocks were over. We knew some of our staff were absorbing the worst case scenario news and getting spooked so we tried to give them something else to focus on.
The results of all this has been our staff – all of them – have felt engaged, informed, cared for and that we communicated well with them. And that isn’t just me saying it – that is what our staff have said to us and to others. This has allowed us to meet the challenges of Covid-19 with an engaged, positive staff which has made everything else so much easier.
So what else have we had to do to address this cursed virus?
Well like many others, our services are face to face and many of the young people we work with have complex underlying health needs and even in normal times experience higher than average levels of social isolation. All of our services had to be suspended which we know added huge strain to their lives and those of their families. In addition, our staff, largely office based, were suddenly remote and we had no idea if our technology or equipment would support them.
So we had to look for other ways – other ways of offering services, other ways of working. I won’t bore you with the specifics – I am sure many of you have been doing the same. Suffice to say that in four weeks we made more happen than would probably have happened in four years. Potentially this leaves us in a much stronger position when things return to “normality”.
Which brings me to my final point. My former Director of Fundraising, now my Director of Communications, has a nickname both in the organisation and the wider sector: Del Boy. A wily Scot who spent some years in Yorkshire, he can’t look at anything without believing “there has to be an earner in it” somewhere. That is the attitude Whizz-Kidz has taken once the initial shock was over – how do we turn this situation to our advantage. Whether that is being ambitious and creative about what our service offering looks like, getting large scale – admittedly ambitious – bids and asks out there in record time or generally not allowing this to hold our ambition back.
So, from my point of view the learning at the end of phase 1 of this situation centres on two things, and it applies for any situation where the whatsit hits the fan;
- Communication is key – make it from one person and make it a priority. If your staff and supporters know what is going on and hear it in a consistent voice they will quickly accept leadership even if on difficult issues. Don’t keep on about negatives. Think of your audience and, as soon as you reasonably can, steer it onto a positive “moving forward” agenda.
- Don’t stop just because it is difficult. Think of Del Boy. Every situation throws up opportunities and our challenge is to find them and be nimble enough to grasp them. Be ambitious, go for it, the chance may not arise again.