O’ Captain My Captain: lifeboats in the time of coronavirus

In the months to follow, all of us who are captains to our businesses will have some size of “boat” to steer, crews to support and passengers to care for. Only the ones that are most responsive and adaptable to the change that is coming will survive

April 29, 2020

It feels like decades ago now, but it has only been shy of one when The Smiling Hippo started connecting with international clients through online digital communication platforms like Skype, discussing our proposals, finding solutions and getting things done. This was before #COVID19 and the new, for many now, necessity of online video calls and team meetings to keep business going while in #quarantine and conform with social distancing rules.

Being a company based in Greece, we have been through quite a few "crises" the past years and our location has raised concerns about our "long-term existence". For many, the “existence” concerns are as much a reality now globally.

During times of crisis, it always struck me that every company – be it in the US, UAE and even the EU - constantly used metaphors about "boats" as a deciding question/factor on sealing the deal; even though we had been told that we had risen above all expectations. In fact, concerns from clients that varied from "what if things don't go well and your (metaphorical) ship sinks" to more literal "what if you go to one of your beautiful islands this summer and the ship sinks and you guys are not there the next day" were points that came up more times than I would like to remember. Both were valid concerns and fears a potential client may have when considering doing business with a company abroad and never meeting in physical person. I bet that mistrust of using digital means has come to change these past couple of months...at least it is my hope.

The takeaway here is this "boat" metaphor, which in my experience has been quite consistent.

The metaphor is intentional and for all intended purposes not so accidental. In our current new global reality, we, as a digital agency, are the ones in crisis, to the same extent as many other types of companies are, in these unprecedented times.

At The Smiling Hippo we have been offering expertise and web-based solutions via #digital means for over 15 years. What I have come to realize as the capital-T truth, is that a "boat" needs three (3) things above all else in a crisis; a) a well-trained, experienced and at-the-ready crew; b) a well-thought-out and robust evacuation plan; c) well-maintained life-boats to get everyone to safety with no casualties.

In the months to follow, those of us who are captains (and maybe some who strive to become captains) all have some size of “boat” to steer, crews to support and passengers to care for. This is going to be a learning experience for you and everyone you know. The three things I mentioned earlier, however tested and optimized, will not always guarantee success in dealing with things as unpredictable as the sea … I am going to keep with this metaphor because it helps me make sense of things.

So what am I getting at here? Obviously “boats” are companies, the “crews” are the people that work for those companies – an experienced, agile and happy workforce was, is and always will be a determining factor of success – and the “passengers” are their clients and collaborators.

The “evacuation plan“ concept is the #strategy to ultimately prepare and build trust with your customers. It may involve the crew’s readiness to a large extent BUT ultimately it’s success is dependent on passenger conformity and involvement. If passengers panic and go off on their own or stay hidden in their cabins, then casualties will ultimately be found when the storm settles; at no fault of their own because it is the normal thing to do when fear kicks in. An experienced, well-trained crew that has cultivated trust and a personal connection with the passengers will be more (cap)able to help them conform with “the plan” and ultimately guide them to safety.

The “life-boat” concept is not so clear cut. In my opinion “life-boats” could be well thought out solutions and groundbreaking next steps OR, more likely, assured and encouraged passengers that trust the crew and captain, who have been “well maintained” and can help keep the “boat” from becoming a shipwreck.

My understanding of problem solving and decision making through learning from external information allows me to pose to you 3 possible outcomes:

  1. Convergence: you take into account useful information and revisit a problem. At every round you use better information towards a more concise and better solution. The better the information, the less the “best” options. That is a good thing.
  2. Divergence: you allow all opinions to be considered equally and you end up going on some random walk, where every time you revisit the issue you end up with as many (but different) options as you had the last time round, maybe even more random than that. This is not good and you learn nothing.
  3. Recursion: This is an unfortunate dead end until new information comes in (where you go back to 1 and 2) where you seem to be going forward but after a few steps end up back where you started.

So how are you and your crew going to provide and/or collect the best information? Who will be the passenger that steps up and helps?

Well, first of all: stop assuming that you’re being business smart in a crisis by getting rid of or demoting crew. As a captain you hired them for a reason and they are invaluable. Some will shine in crisis and some will fold. If you are a good captain, your crew will support you and will follow you in a time of need. You can assess them (and yourself!) after the dust has settled. It’s all hands on deck now, you need them! This truly is a time of Darwinian evolution – the fittest most adaptable to change will survive, not necessarily the strongest richest or most intelligent.

Next you will see passengers stepping up to support you, come to you with an air of companionship and collaboration. Embrace it, roll up your sleeves and work with and for them. They didn’t jump ship or “boat”, so be the captain they need, practice #empathy and cut them a lot of slack in this difficult time. Difficult situations build much deeper forms of relationships and you have to step out of your corporate façade and be more human.

Finally, as I feel this is becoming a Hollywood script and I will have to add bionic sharks or some sort of sea monster, take the time to appreciate how this unprecedented situation can make you as a captain offer more to your crew and passengers, how your crew can grow with your help and how you can go back to building relationships rather than paychecks. Because in the end, it only took a month to lockdown the planet. Is that really a timespan that is representative of the journey that got you where you are today? It most definitely isn’t mine.

Victor A. Simossis
Co-Founder & CEO of The Smiling Hippo Digital Agency


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