Harness the Current

Access Continuum’s Leadership Model for leading through novel unknowns

Continuum Consulting Services LLC

From an interview by Sallie Lee with Wendy White and Lisa Marie Main, September 2021, marking 18 months since global awareness of the COVID-19 virus and the emergence of the Continuum Leadership Model. Here’s a summary of the conversation.

Sallie: How did the Leadership Model come to you?

Lisa: People were saying things would be back to normal in a few weeks, but we thought ’not so fast’. We wanted to serve our clients in being able to change and adapt, knowing the journey brought on by COVID could last months, or years.

Wendy: We could see that this time would have to be one of extraordinary innovation–planning for the future in new ways. There was a need for new competencies, client services and programs that were just-in-time to better support people. So, we put on our ‘futurist’ hats.  How might we be of service in staying ahead of what was unfolding? What would our clients need to lead in current time, right now?

Continuum is known for our innovations in leadership and organizational development. We realized that some elements of our leadership series would need to shift immediately. We also looked at ourselves and what we needed in-house to come out strong at the other end, whenever that might be.

Lisa: Placing COVID in context for Continuum and our clients was overwhelming at first, and then we saw it: COVID was like being in a storm.  Both of us had been caught in various natural disasters–hurricanes, floods, major snowstorms–and so we began to consider how we had dealt with those situations, navigating what we’ve come to call novel unknowns,situations where we have no real tried-and-true ways of managing something that impacts us. It’s unexpected and calls for new thinking.

Wendy: And there it was. Looking at stages and phases of moving through natural disasters and some of our work there, we found predictable phases for navigating COVID.

Lisa: We also looked at war as a model. With war, you don’t know when it will end.  COVID has been that way, too.  In war, you have to find a way to function in the midst of uncertainty and disruption, to keep going and stay the course in spite of the novel unknowns.  There’s much to be learned from using war as a metaphor for such high-stakes constant change.

But the idea of COVID as a war didn’t feel right, so we went with the flow of natural disaster, seeing four phases of moving through natural crisis and recovery that leaders must respond to and guide.

Sallie: Can you walk us through the five phases of the model?

You can see the model here. See if and how it rings true for you in your experience.

Lisa: The first four phases are congruent with the way responses to natural disasters unfold, but we looked at whether that was enough, given where we find ourselves around the globe in a state of ‘one thing after another.’  So, we added a Phase 5.

Phase 1: First of all, Crisis Hits—’Oh, shit.’

What now? How fast can we move?

Disruption is unfolding faster than can yet be understood, and the organization innately focuses inward, laser focused on critical core business only. This phase calls on leaders to manage their own fears and concerns while making tough decisions for an organization in chaos, facing uncertainty.

Phase 2:  Early New Norm—Now What!?!

What’s normal now?

Immediate stabilization occurs while the organization continues to focus inward and on key partnerships. Leadership focuses on keeping people engaged, connected, and focused as new forms of customer engagement emerge.

Phase 3: Later New Norm—Wait, There’s More?

Then, another wave hits. See the next novel unknown coming, pushing you right back to Phase 1. Transitioning from initial stabilization to early reconstruction, the organization moves toward outward focus while still maintaining inward focus and managing continuing disruptions.

Phase 4: ’We’ve Got This!’—Into Reconstruction

Eventually, but not totally, the phase of reconstruction emerges.

How do we rebuild back stronger and better than ever, even in the midst of what’s happening?

Into Phase 5: No Going Back to Before

Wendy: It’s not just COVID but the ongoing weather disruptions from climate change, along with political disagreements about how to plan for and manage new climate impacts. There’s the rise in importance of racial justice and the call for political shifts around the divides separating us on immigration, gender identity, right to life, and breakthroughs in artificial intelligence that may change the way we live day-to-day.

We realized this state of constant ‘new’, of emerging mega-trends, was not going to settle down any time soon.  All of us are going to be living in a cascade of novel unknowns for the foreseeable future.

We’re not going to get back to where we were before. Leaders are guiding their organizations in the face of arising and ever-emergent challenges. There’s some sense of grief and loss involved at this point because much was very good before.  It brings up a difficult question: How do we navigate the unknown and not get lost in the fear and despair of it? 

We also have to look at what’s more possible now. Perhaps some things weren’t possible without the disruptions? Some things that will be better than before?

Lisa: COVID has given us a significant long pause. It has given us a chance to stand back, look, watch and delight in what nature does and can do with its power to recover and regenerate.  We are thinking: This is the right moment. Can we Inspire leaders to be more committed to a triple bottom line, to sustainability, to new ways of operating called for in a world that can so easily produce new COVIDs?

We saw and felt a moment of opportunity arise, past reconstructing and rebuilding, to the possibility of building stronger, better, newly. That was the impetus for the leadership model’s Phase 5.

5) What’s Possible Now?  Regeneration

An organization looks inward and outward to imagine and prepare for a sustainable future, leveraging the disruptions to explore new possibilities for growth, production and systemic impact.

We began to see examples, both macro and micro, of disruptive situations that impact us and everyone around us, or maybe just a new wrinkle that applies mostly to our organization or community, such as a new, unexpected competitor or breaks in an important supply chain that can be leveraged for new ways of working.

The Continuum Leadership Model

Once we got to this point and worked with clients and within our own organization to balance ourselves during COVID, we realized that our unfolding model wasn’t just a temporary leadership lens for moving through COVID, but a way we will think about leadership into the future.

The key to leading through any major change or novel unknown is understanding the predictable phases you and your organization will encounter so you can deploy the right leadership, team and organizational approach at the right time to yield the best outcome and a novel future.

It has become our Continuum Leadership Model for leading through novel unknowns.