James Yeates: Learn from your history, or be doomed to repeat it

Taking the time to reflect on our experiences in the Covid-19 pandemic has helped set us up for the future

Nobody wants to relive 2020, especially while we have the current resurgence focusing our attention.

However, we all know there is value in learning from our history – or be doomed to repeat it. It’s not the glitziest part of leadership, perhaps, but one of the most important.

With that in mind, the leadership team at Cats Protection recently completed an exercise to bring together everything we learnt from last year.

It was well worth doing, so I thought sharing our learnings might help to reassure and encourage others to do their own exercise.

Reflecting on our experiences over the past year helped us see what we could do differently “next time”, given what we know now.

Importantly, we saw what we should keep, repeat and enhance.

More widely, the exercise shone a brilliant light on our organisation, giving us a chance to recognise aspects of our working culture, processes and practices explicitly and proactively.

It role-modelled safe and open learning from the top, strengthened relationships and camaraderie, and brought people together to reaffirm our shared purpose, aims and ambitions.

We started by compiling a chronology of events, including the government’s restrictions and our responses to maximise our cat work compliantly and safely.

This reminded us of the challenges – the complexity, information-paucity, uncertainty and volatility at the time – and the sheer breadth of our responses.

We evaluated our decisions, implementation and communications across the whole organisation, using criteria of speed, cost and quality, compliance, consistency and stakeholders’ emotional experiences.

We then drew recommendations, as broad principles and specific actions, and assigned accountability for them.

We deliberately included learnings already being implemented, to recognise and consolidate them.

Some covered how to reduce future challenges, such as risk assessment and timely data management.

Others related to how we should respond, such as empowerment and (no surprise) digital transformation.

The fundamental reason for the exercise was that everyone involved wanted to learn on a personal level more than wanting to educate others.

Everyone was committed to making it work, and so brought their best selves to the job: brave, candid, tactful, mature and self-aware.

We explicitly recognised in advance that nobody gets everything perfectly right – and believing that one does is probably a symptom not of greatness, but of blindness.

We also ensured everyone was clear that the aim was an exercise in discovery, and understood what was excluded, such as performance management and ongoing crisis-management decisions.

The exercise was a broad one, kept at a level of detail appropriate for the board and drawing in inputs from across the organisation, including project leads and our volunteer council.

We also kept it tight, led by a small task-and-finish group of six members selected from the board and executive team, and used a project methodology with strict deadlines.

These were shared with senior leadership, and are beginning to be shared more widely.

Managing the inevitable emotional aspects was also important, with everyone personally committing to ensuring that it was open and organisational rather than personal; appreciative and non-defensive.

We expressed when the review felt uncomfortable, so that we could be additionally sensitive and careful – but without skirting the issues.

When discomfort inevitably occurred, we knew we were on the same side.

Even if now is not the time, planning for a reflective exercise in the future can help everyone to keep focus on each day’s immediate decisions, depersonalise disagreements, and look for learnings as they go.

Our process has made me even more proud of, and impressed by, everyone involved in the exercise itself (especially as we did it while dealing with the ongoing Covid-19 crisis) and everyone involved in our response to the pandemic across the organisation.

James Yeates is chief executive of Cats Protection

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