26 Lessons from Mobilizing a Civilian War Response in Ukraine – June 2022

There are a million topics I could have chosen to explore this month. But as we approach the Fourth of July and our country’s annual reflection on what it means to be a democratic republic, I’d like to share some insights from another democratic republic, Ukraine – a country that is entering its fifth month of war to try to preserve its very sovereignty.

A few weeks ago, PEN hosted a webinar that featured two speakers: PEN member Dr. Irina Fursman of HueLife and Oleg Shapovalov, a learning & organizational development expert.  Irina lives in the Twin Cities but is originally from Crimea (and many in her family still live in Ukraine); Oleg lives in Kyiv.  In their talk, “From Chaos to Systems of Support,” both shared lessons from their efforts to mobilize a response to the war, focusing on insights that can translate to more normal, everyday business situations – insights regarding communication, project management and logistics coordination, managing change, setting strategy, and navigating complex systems.

I personally found the discussion fascinating and tremendously valuable.  In many ways, it put our day-to-day struggles into proper context: though we’re all dealing with professional and personal challenges these days (more now than maybe a few years ago, for sure), not many of us are navigating the challenges of a hot war, where quite literally any day could destroy our homes, businesses, families, and quality of life (or life itself).  But what I found most interesting is that when you neutralize the context, the insights are similar.  In other words, the best practices in navigating a response to a war are similar to the best practices in leadership, managing change, and navigating professional settings for many of us.

I thought I’d share the most interesting insights, starting first with best practices in communication and then moving to best practices in convening, coordination, and managing change:

  • Effective communication is critical and speed is crucial – messages must get out quickly, reliably, accurately, and efficiently.  That’s certainly the case in times of war, but also in managing a team or an organizational change initiative.  (You can insert that last underlined sentence as a punch line to any/all of the following insights!)
  • For effective communication, use multiple channels: written (paper, digital, social media), but also frequent and regular live discussions.  Hosting live discussions is important in building trust and deepening relationships, especially among people who don’t have a previous history.
  • In any change effort, you need a communications strategy – a plan that is thoughtful and systematic.  Otherwise, you are always reacting and responding to whatever seems urgent at the time.
  • Key messages needed to be delivered in all languages.  In this case, that means Ukrainian, English, and Russian.  But the principle is the same in an organizational setting when you consider diversity of stakeholders – some with different actual language needs (non-English speaking workers), but many with different communication preferences and requirements. One size doesn’t fit all.
  • Use social media for mass communication when you need concise, broad messaging.  Given the constant Russian propaganda (not unlike active resisters to change in an organizational setting), social media messaging needs to come from a trusted source.
  • In war (and in organizational change efforts), there is always propaganda and misinformation. Therefore, messages constantly need to be analyzed, vetted, and revised to reflect the current situation.  Accuracy, relevance, and currency in messaging is critically important – often the difference between life and death in times of war (or successful or unsuccessful results in an organization).
  • You need communication on multiple levels – the tactical level (local community channels for immediate information about a street, a neighborhood, or a city), operational channels (information from the president, mayors, and other official sources), and strategic channels (trusted third party resources that provide context and analysis).  The same principle applies in considering different layers of communication within organizations.
  • Schedule live meetings during times to maximize participation, paying attention to time zone differences.  Certainly that’s the case in the war response effort, but it’s also the case for many regional, national, and multinational businesses and organizations.
  • For communication to be effective, you need trust.  So be careful who you invite to meetings and how you structure and facilitate the discussion to maximize productivity of the group and to accomplish your objectives.  If people are inclined to disagree with certain topics, visit with them before the meeting to understand their position and explore room for compromise before wasting the group’s time.
  • For effective communication, language is also critically important.  Choose your words carefully to convey the message you’re trying to convey.  During times of chaos, it’s easy to misinterpret messages.  Be deliberate; be intentional and thoughtful.
  • Establish a “core team” (or a steering team) – a small group of trusted individuals who can operate, guide, lead fairly interchangeably, bringing momentum and consistency in project leadership and coordination.
  • Use action teams (or task forces) to execute focused, strategically aligned action plans against a master strategy.  This builds momentum, focus, and alignment and also helps manage scope and optimize resources.
  • In building these teams, make sure to invite the “right” people to ensure diversity and balance of perspectives as well as breadth and coverage of needed skillsets.
  • When you convene different stakeholders, the format (of the meeting) needs to meet its purpose (information sharing, problem solving, decision making, and so forth).
  • There will always be more ideas than resources to accomplish those ideas.  So it’s important to prioritize, selecting action plans that match available resources.
  • Use information sharing platforms (like GoogleDocs) to keep teams up to date on the current situation.
  • In complex initiatives, use a standard meeting structure and format.  Get into a rhythm and cadence in your meetings, so that they are consistent, predictable and efficient.
  • In periods of unpredictable and constant change, setting precise goals may not be a productive exercise (think about goal setting in the early days of COVID, when no one really knew what would happen next). Instead, set a general direction, take some action and try to accomplish something, and then adjust as needed.  Take baby steps, but just make progress. Once things stabilize and become more predictable, then consider setting more specific goals.
  • When you plan in a constantly changing environment, use more agile or rapid planning tools.  Plan for shorter time horizons when variables can be a little more predictable – 30 or 60 day increments instead of one, three, or five years.
  • Fail fast, learn, and adjust.  Have a focus on action and rapid learning cycles.
  • Scenario planning is only helpful if you know the range of possible scenarios.  During chaotic times, the value of scenario planning is more in thinking through different situations and preparing for rapid response, rather than in getting the scenarios exactly right.
  • When you find the right resources, work to keep them engaged.  During times of rapid and significant change, focus on morale, mental health, stress and burnout – the human and psychological aspects of change.  Certainly, the stakes are higher during war, but these factors matter greatly in the professional context as well.
  • Quality and facilitation tools work in a variety of circumstances, from simple continuous improvement projects to more significant organizational change initiatives to mobilizing a civilian war response.  They’ve been used and refined over decades because they work.
  • There are many opportunities in life to connect with something bigger than yourself.  Keep perspective. Find purpose, whether it’s a professional mission, something related to family, something that improves your community, or even an effort to save your country.  Purpose sustains.
  • During times of uncertainty – times when you’re experiencing intense pressure and fear – it helps to take action.  Do something.  It’ll help you make forward progress, even if only a small step.  And it gives you a sense of control.
  • Helping others – working with others on a team – gives you a sense of connection.  Humans are social creatures, and we need to feel community and common bonds.

There aren’t many of us (thankfully) who will be forced to mobilize a civilian response to war.  But in hearing the stories and exploring the insights of those who have, not only do we have an opportunity to recalibrate a bit (my challenges today certainly pale in comparison to those dealing with the chaos and calamity of war), but we also have an opportunity to see how the tools, techniques, and best practices used in our business initiatives also work in the most extreme circumstances.  They export…they translate, because – quite simply – they work.

If you want to learn more…

  • If you’re interested in viewing the full video on demand, visit here.
  • If you’re interested in attending a quick Virtual Engagement Workshop to learn more, visit here.  These workshops are for facilitators, project managers, consultants, and leaders to sharpen their skills and make virtual experiences as impactful and meaningful as possible.  They are a “learning playground,” with minimal content and maximum practice, where participants can learn and perfect skills and tools in a safe, non-judgmental environment (and also connect with Ukrainian colleagues who are on the front line of this war).
  • And if you’re interested in learning more about the Ukraine war response effort (or to donate funds, volunteer, or help with advocacy), visit here.

What other insights/tips do you have regarding the lessons from the Ukraine war and how they apply to “normal” business?  Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment.  And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!

Stay healthy and never stop improving!

Brian S. Lassiter

President, Performance Excellence Network


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