Change lessons from Covid-19

What can we learn about leading change from our response to Covid-19?

The arrival of Spring 2020 will no longer be defined by the absence of winter in our climate which I suspect would have been the main news in a ‘normal’ year. It will be remembered as the year that the Bill Gates pandemic prophecy (Bill Gates TED talk 2015) became a reality. It will be forever remembered for the Covid-19 pandemic, the death of hundreds of thousands of people and the ‘lockdown’ of society which has already engulfed over 100 countries across the world.

The new normal is a set of policies from political leaders including – movement and gathering restrictions, forced business closures and event cancellations, tracking individuals and forced isolation and travel bans. All this has happened without revolution and largely with the willing and supportive co-operation of the population.

Are there any lessons for leading change in other settings here? (apart from the seismic impact of fear on behaviour) – especially about what works and what doesn’t work?

I think I have spied a few so I thought I would share them. 

The leaders’ challenge when facing new threats

Lets observe the first thing. It takes time to recognise the scale and nature of a new threat and to realise that decision and action is needed. 

Few countries’ leaders have responded in a very timely and effective fashion – from the initial desire of Chinese leaders to penalise the messenger and deny the problem to the slow and reluctant response of the liberal Western governments to take the scale of the problem seriously and institute any effective response. One feared punishment in the face of failure, the other unpopularity. There are lessons for us from both these motivations.

Those that have done best are those with ‘battle’ experience..maybe prior experience (with SARS or MERS) and a pre-planned response. They identified a threat more quickly and acted faster. Taiwan and South Korea being amongst the best examples.


  • For change agility we need to genuinely learn from prior external events and threats. The sorts of hard thinking that go into scenario planning, gaming and risk identification and mitigation can have a real value if leaders use them well. These kind of exercises build resilience and speed – enacted in some pre-defined policy or plan
  • The importance of differentiating types of ‘resistance’ and facts. Humans change their minds – viruses don’t.

The need for effective decision structures

Governance is for many a boring topic and yet again it has proved to be of vital importance. 

Making change happen, in response to a crisis or to achieve something new, needs decisions to made that can then be implemented. These normally stretch across organisational and individuals silos. To identify and scale the threat and work out what to do and how to make it happen – especially at speed – needs to marshal a wide range of data and issues effectively.  In the UK, normal cabinet government is not sufficient for this. This is what the COBRA meetings are supposed to do.

The slow and chaotic response in the USA at the Federal level demonstrates the weaknesses in both the decision making and the capability deployed to respond to it (New York Times). Without governance that can reach across the natural silos of business-as-usual it is very difficult to identify the priorities, take the right decisions and implement them.

The key lessons?

They feel like reminders of good basics to me:

  • To think about governance ahead of the storm of change, and 
  • To have clearly focused and defined structures for leading change that can where necessary overcome the status quo structures and obstacles

The importance and limits of clear communication

Every leader recognises how important good communications are for launching and managing change successfully. Almost every major change will have a communications thread called out in its governance  and so much of the work that I have done with leaders over the years reminds us both that it is almost impossible to do enough communication when change is desired.

The UK has been a great place to see the value and limits of this. In the UK the government shed communications through February and into March of the importance of social distancing and the relatively benign nature of the likely illness: two very soft messages that lulled most of the population into underestimating the seriousness of the situation. It was only as the scale of potential deaths was counted and the scenes from Italy became worse that that the messaging became more deliberate and clear. However, by that time when the communication ramped up w/c March 9th it was with little effect as demonstrated by the vast and undistanced masses in beauty spots the following weekend and the enforced restrictions the day after by which time most people seemed happy to follow them.


  • Verbal communications need to be clear, simple and utterly consistent (over time and across leaders) to achieve maximum effect. 
  • Yet what is said is still weak in the face of multimedia reality. The footage from Italy and of bereaved families transformed the responsiveness of people. Leaders need the equivalent to cut through inertia.

There are real limits to soft power

In the UK the government is generally perceived to have moved slowly to the lockdown restrictions. Italy moved on March 9th, Denmark on March 13th and then others quickly followed but we seemed reluctant to use this tool and rather wanted to encourage and educate people to the required behaviours – avoiding crowded public spaces that would promote wider transmission (like pubs or concerts), maintaining social distance with those outside the household and washing your hands.

The failure of these over the weekend of 14/15 March moved the government to up their messaging on social distance and safe working but this still had little effect in the good weather that continued that week and led to a legally enforced lockdown on 23rd.


– Leading in our world needs to be recognised as legitimate and this often means we lean to use soft power rather than hard power, especially when we are seeking commitment. Yet hard power makes a vital contribution to reducing the freeloader problem and in garnering people’s attention and can be used without losing legitimacy if used in a timely and proportionate way.


As I write this we are starting to stare down the road forward which looks like it goes well into 2021 until there is a good treatment protocol or a vaccine available.  Hopefully we will not face a similar threat again but given that we likely will, we need to be good at learning our lessons this time round.

photo courtesy of Annie Spratt on Unsplash