What’s Missing From Zoom Reminds Us What It Means to Be Human

Over the last month billions of people have been unwilling participants in the largest unintentional social experiment ever run – testing how video conferencing replaced face-to-face communication.

While we’ve discovered that in many cases it can, more importantly we’ve discovered that, regardless of bandwidth and video resolution, these apps are missing the cues humans use when they communicate. While we might be spending the same amount of time in meetings, we’re finding we’re less productive, social interactions are less satisfying and distance learning is less effective. And we’re frustrated that we don’t know why.

Here’s why video conferencing apps don’t capture the complexity of human interaction.


All of us sheltering at home have used video conferencing apps for virtual business meetings, virtual coffees with friends, family meetings, online classes, etc. And while the technology allows us to conduct business, see friends and transfer information one-on-one and one-to-many from our homes, there’s something missing. It’s just not the same as connecting live at the conference room table, the classroom or local coffee shop. And it seems more exhausting. Why?

What’s missing?
It turns out that today’s video conferencing technology doesn’t emulate how people interact with others in person. Every one of these video applications has ignored a half-century of research on how people communicate.

Meeting Location
In the physical world the space and context give you cues and reinforcement. Are you meeting on the 47th floor boardroom with a great view? Are you surrounded by other animated conversations in a coffee shop or sitting with other classmates in a lecture hall? With people working from home you can’t tell where the meeting is or how important the location or setting is. In a video conference all the contextual clues are homogenized. You look the same whether you are playing poker or making a sales call, in a suit or without pants. (And with video conferences people are seeing your private space. Now you need to check if there’s anything embarrassing lying around. Or your kids are screaming and interrupting meetings. It’s fatiguing trying to keep business and home life separate.)

In the real world you just don’t teleport into a meeting. Video conferencing misses the transitions as you enter a building, find the room and sit down. The same transitions are missing when you leave a video conference. There is no in and out. The conference is just over.

Physical Contact
Second, most business and social gatherings start with physical contact – a handshake or a hug. There’s something about that first physical interaction that communicates trust and connection through touch. In business meetings there’s also the formal ritual of exchanging business cards. Those all are preambles to establish a connection for the meeting which follows.

Meeting Space Context
In person we visually take in much more information than just looking at someone’s face. If we’re in a business meeting, we’ll scan the room, rapidly changing our gaze. We can see what’s on desks or hanging on the walls, what’s in bookshelves or in cubicles. If we’re in a conference or classroom, we’ll see who we’re sitting next to, notice what they’re wearing, carrying, reading, etc. We can see relationships between people and notice deference, hierarchy, side glances and other subtle cues. And we use all of this to build a context and make assumptions—often unconsciously —about personalities, positions, social status and hierarchy.

Looking in a Mirror While Having A Meeting
Before meeting in person, you may do a quick check of your appearance, but you definitely don’t hold up a mirror in the middle of a meeting constantly seeing how you look. Yet with the focus on us as much as on the attendees, most video apps seem designed to make us self conscious and distract from watching who’s speaking.

Non-Verbal Cues
Most importantly, researchers have known for at least fifty years that at least half of how we communicate is through non-verbal cues. In conversation we watch other’s hands, follow their gestures, focus on their facial expressions and their tone of voice. We make eye contact and notice whether they do. And we are constantly following their body language (posture, body orientation, how they stand or sit, etc.)

In a group meeting it’s not only following the cues of the speaker, but it’s often the side glances, eye rolls and shrugs between our peers and other participants that offer direction and nuance to the tenor of a meeting. On a computer screen, all that cross person interaction is lost.

The sum of these non verbal cues is the (again often unconscious) background of every conversation.

But video conferencing apps just offer a fixed gaze from one camera. Everyone is relegated to a one-dimensional square on the screen. It’s the equivalent of having your head in a vise, having been wheeled into a meeting wearing blinders while tied to a chair.

Are Olfactory Cues Another Missing Piece?
There’s one more set of communication cues we may be missing over video. Scientists have discovered that in animals, including mammals and primates, communication not only travels through words, gestures, body language and facial expressions but also through smells via the exchange of chemicals and hormones called pheromones. These are not odors that consciously register, but nevertheless are picked up by the olfactory bulb in our nose. Pheromones send signals to the brain about sexual status, danger and social organization. It’s hypothesized odors and pheromones control some of our social behaviors and regulate hormone levels. Could these olfactory cues be one additional piece of what we’re missing when we try to communicate over video? If so, emulating these clues digitally will be a real challenge.

Why Zoom and Video Teleconferencing is Exhausting
If you’ve spent any extended period using video for a social or business meeting during the pandemic, you’ve likely found it exhausting. Or if you’re using video for learning, you may realize it’s affecting your learning by reducing your ability to process and retain information.

We’re exhausted because of the extra cognitive processing (fancy word for having to consciously do extra thinking) to fill in the missing 50% of the conversation that we’d normally get from non-verbal and olfactory cues. It’s the accumulation of all these missing signals that’s causing mental fatigue.

Turning Winners Into Losers
And there’s one more thing that makes video apps taxing. While they save a lot of time for initial meetings and screening prospects, salespeople are discovering that closing complex deals via video is difficult. Even factoring out the economy, the reason is that in person, great salespeople know to “read” a meeting. For example, they can tell when someone who was nodding yes to deal actually meant “no way.” Or they can pick up the “tell me more signal” when someone leans forward. In Zoom all those cues are gone. As a result, deals that should be easy to close will take longer, and those that are hard won’t happen. You’re investing the same or more time getting the meetings, but frustrated that little or no forward progress occurs. It’s a productivity killer for sales.

In social situations a feel for body language may help us sense that a friend who’s smiling and saying everything is fine is actually have a hard time in their personal life. Without these physical cues—and the loss of physical contact—may lead to a greater distance between our family and friends. Video can bridge the distance but lacks the empathy a hug communicates.

An Opportunity for Innovators to Take Video Conferencing to the Next Level
This billion person science experiment replacing face-to face communication with digital has convinced me of a few things:

  1. The current generation of video conferencing applications ignore how humans communicate
    • They don’t help us capture the non-verbal communication cues – touch, gestures, postures, glances, odors, etc.
    • They haven’t done their homework in understanding how important each of these cues is and how they interact with each other. (What is the rank order of the importance of each cue?)
    • Nor do they know which of these cues is important in different settings. For example, what are the right cues to signal empathy in social settings, sincerity, trustworthiness and rapport in business settings or attention and understanding in education?
  2. There’s a real opportunity for a next generation of video conference applications to fill these holes. These new products will begin to address issues such as: How do you shake hands? Exchange business cards? Pick up on the environment around the speaker? Notice the non-verbal cues?
  3. There are already startups offering emotion detection and analytics software that measure speech patterns and facial cues to infer feelings and attention levels. Currently none of these tools are integrated into broadly used video conferencing apps. And none of them are yet context sensitive to particular meeting types. Perhaps an augmented reality overlay with non verbal cues for business users might be a first step as powerful additions.

Lessons Learned

  • Today’s video conferencing applications are a one-note technical solution to the complexity of human interaction
    • Without the missing non-verbal cues, business is less productive, social interactions are less satisfying and distance learning is less effective
  • There’s an opportunity for someone to build the next generation of video conference applications that can recognize key cues in the appropriate context
    • This time with psychologists and cognitive researchers leading the team

In a Crisis – An Opportunity For A More Meaningful Life

Sheltering in place during the Covid-19 pandemic, my coffees with current and ex-students (entrepreneurs, as well as employees early in their careers) have gone virtual. Pre-pandemic these coffees were usually about what startup to join or how to find product/market fit. Though in the last month, even through Zoom I could sense they were struggling with a much weightier problem. The common theme in these calls were that many of them were finding this crisis to be an existential wakeup call. “My job feels pretty meaningless in the big picture of what matters. I’m thinking about what happens when I can go back to work. I’m no longer sure my current career path is what I want to do. How do I figure it out?”

Here’s what I’ve told them.


In a Crisis – An Opportunity to Reflect
If you’re still in school, or early in your career, you thought you would graduate into a strong economy and the road ahead had plenty of opportunities. That world is gone and perhaps not returning for a year or more. Economies across the world are in a freefall. As unemployment in the U.S. passes 15%, the lights are going off in companies, and we won’t see them back on for a long time. Some industries will never be the same. Internships and summer work may be gone, too.

But every crisis brings an opportunity. In this case, to reassess one’s life and ask: How do I want to use my time when the world recovers?

What I suggested was, that the economic disruption caused by the virus and the recession that will follow is one of those rare opportunities to consider a change, one that could make your own life more meaningful, allow you to make an impact, and gain more than just a salary from your work. Perhaps instead of working for the latest social media or ecommerce company or in retail or travel or hospitality, you might want to make people live healthier, longer and more productive lives.

I pointed out that if you’re coming out of school or early in your career you have an edge –  You have the most flexibility to reevaluate you trajectory. You could consider alternate vocations – medical research or joining a startup in therapeutics, diagnostics, medical devices, or digital health (mobile health, health IT, wearable devices, telemedicine, and personalized medicine). Or become an EMT, doctor or nurse.  Or consider the impact remote learning has had in the pandemic. How can you make it better and more effective? What are ways you might help to strengthen organizations that help those less able and less fortunate?

Here are the steps you can take to get started:
Use the customer discovery methodology to search for new careers.

  1. Start by doing some reading and research, looking to the leading publications in the field you’re interested in learning more about. News sources for Digital Health and Life Sciences are different from software/hardware blogs such as Hacker News, TechCrunch, etc.

If you’re interested in learning more about a career in Life Sciences, start reading:

If you’re thinking about educational technology start by reading EdSurge

And if you’re thinking about getting involved in social entrepreneurship, read The Stanford Social Innovation Review as well as the social entrepreneurship sections of publications like Entrepreneur, Inc., Fast Company and Forbes.

  1. Get out of the building (virtually) and talk to people in the professions you’re interested in. (People on the front-line of the Covid-19 fight (e.g. first responders, health care workers) might be otherwise engaged, but others in the field may be available to chat.) Learn about the job, whether they enjoy it and how you can get on that career track.
  2. Get out of the building physically. If possible, volunteer for some front-line activities. Think about internships in the new fields you’re exploring.
  3. If you’re thinking of starting a company, get to know the VC’s. They are different depending on the type of startup you’re building. Unlike in the 20th century where most VC’s financed hardware, software and life sciences, today therapeutics, diagnostics, and medical devices, are funded via VC firms that specialize in only those domains. Digital health crosses the boundaries and may be founded by all types of firms. Get to know who they are.

Some of the Life Science VC blogs and podcasts:

For edtech the VC firm to know is Reach Capital

  1. Inexpensively pivot your education into a new field. An online education could be a viable alternative to expensive college debt. Coursera, EdX and ClassCentral have hundreds of on-line classes in medicine, health and related fields. Accredited universities also offer online programs (see here.) If you’re in school, take some classes outside your existing major (example here.)

My advice in all of these conversations? Carpe Diem – seize the day.

Now is the time to ask: Is my work relevant?  Am I living the life I really wanted? Does the pandemic change the weighting of what’s important?

Make your life extraordinary.

Lessons Learned

  • Your career will only last for 14,000 days
  • If you’re still in school, reconsider your major or where you thought it was going to take you
  • If you’re early in your career, now is the time to consider what it would take to make a pivot
  • In the end, the measure of your life will not be money or time. It’s the impact you make serving God, your family, community, and country. In the end, our report-card will be whether we left the world a better place.

Customer Discovery In the Time Of the Covid-19 Virus

A version of this article appeared in TechCrunch.

With in-person classes canceled, we’re about to start our online versions of Hacking for Defense and Hacking for Oceans (and here). The classes are built on the Lean Startup methodology: Customer Discovery, Agile Engineering and the Business/Mission Model Canvas. So how do our students get out of the building to talk to customers to do Customer Discovery when they can’t get out of the building?  How do should startups do it?

—-

Reminder: What’s the Point of Talking to Customers?
Talking to customers seems like a simple idea, but most founders find it’s one of the hardest things they have to do. Founders innately believe they understand a customers problem and just need to spend their time building a solution. We now have a half a century of data to say that belief is wrong. To build products that people want and will really use, founders first need to validate the problem/need, then understand whether their solution solves that problem (i.e. finding product/market fit). Finally to have a better chance of a viable enterprise, they need to test all the other hypotheses in their business/mission model (pricing, demand creation, revenue, costs, etc.)

The key principles of customer development are:

  1. There are no facts inside the building so get the heck outside
  2. All you have are a series of untested hypotheses
  3. You can test your hypotheses with a series of experiments with potential customers

Now with sheltering-in-place the new normal, we’ll add a fourth principle:

  1. In-person interviews are not the only way to test your hypotheses

Reminder: What’s the Point of Physically Getting Out of The Building?
One of the reasons for interviewing people in person is to engage in a dialog that lets you be sure you understand the problem you are solving and measure customers’ reactions to the minimal viable products you put in front of them.

There’s a rule of thumb that says, “If you can see their pupils dilate and can tell they’re checking not their watch,” it’s a valuable interview.  The gold standard are in-person interviews where you can not only do all of that, and get to see what’s on their desks, the awards on their walls, the books on their shelves, and other ephemera that may give you clues about their interests and behavior. But today, with the Covid-19 pandemic that’s no longer possible. So the next best thing is a Video Teleconference.

Video Teleconferencing is Your Virtual Friend
Video (via Zoom, Skype, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, etc.) with enough resolution to see someone’s facial expressions –  is more than an adequate substitute, and in some cases better – as it allows you to connect to more people in a shorter period of time. When we first taught the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps 11 years ago, the first 75 teams did Customer Discovery this way. (More advanced tools for remote user testing like ValidatelyUsertesting, Lookback, etc. are worth checking out.)

Our classes require students to talk to 100 Customers/Beneficiaries in 10 weeks. Before the pandemic, customers were found where they worked or played. Today, while some may still be at work, most will be sheltering at home, and almost all have more time on their hands than before. (You certainly do! Given you’re not traveling to customer interviews, you ought to be able to do more than 100 interviews.)

Getting a Meeting in the Midst of Chaos
Don’t assume potential interviewees are answering their work phones. And if they’re working at home, they may have a different email address. Don’t use the same opening email pitch you did before the virus. Your email should recognize and acknowledge the new normal. (i.e. Hello, my name is xx. I know this must be a crazy time for you. I’m a student/PI at xx University. All our classes have gone online. I’m investigating whether [problem x] would be valuable to solve today or when the world returns to normal. Would you be willing to speak to me?)

One upside is that you may now be able to get access to people who normally have a cloud of administrative gatekeepers around them. If you have a solution that is relevant to their business in this uncertain time, reach out to them.

Find Out How Their World Has Changed
In addition to the standard customer discovery and validation questions (how they did their job, what pains they had around current solutions, etc.) you need to understand:

  • What were their needs/problem/solution/industry pre-Covid 19?
  • What is it like now?
  • Have there been regulatory changes? Customer behavior changes?
  • What do they think it will be like when the recovery comes?
  • Will their problem/solution be the same or do they think it may change?

Presenting Your Minimal Viable Product (MVP) Online
An MVP is an experiment. It’s what you can show a potential customer/ user/ beneficiary/partner that will get you the most learning at a point in time. You build MVP’s to validate the need/problem, then to validate product/market or mission/solution fit and finally the rest of the business/mission model canvas. You can use wireframes, PowerPoints slides, simulated screenshots, storyboards, mockups or demo’s. The rest of the canvas might be validated with pricelists, spreadsheets, etc. (Alex Osterwalder and David Bland’s new book, Testing Business Ideas is a great help here.)

Given that you are now presenting over video, you are going to be trying to communicate a lot of information in a small window on a computer screen. On-line MVP building and delivery will need to become an art form. Rather than doing every demo of your MVP live, consider 1) recording it 2) highlighting the key points.

  • Break your MVP demo into <1 minute segments. Edit the video to illustrate each of your points, This allows customers/beneficiaries to interrupt and ask questions and allows you to jump to different parts of the demo.
  • If you would normally have your potential customer hold, feel or use the product, make sure you demo someone doing that. Take the time to zoom in.
  • As you show your MVP, split the screen so you can see the customer’s reaction as the demo unfolds.
  • Practice, practice, practice the delivery of MVP’s. First it needs to be built and practiced, then the smaller parts for delivery need to be practiced. Anticipate questions and prepare your answers to them.
  • Ask if you can record the session. If not, make sure a team member is online to take notes.
  • Remember – at this point you’re testing hypotheses – not selling.

Validate the Rest of Business/Mission Model Components
A common mistake in building a startup is testing only product/market (mission/solution) fit. But other business/mission model components must be tested and validated, too. How can you test demand creation hypotheses during shelter in place for the Covid-19 virus? Important ideas you’ll want to consider:  Are potential customers beneficiaries now reachable in new ways? How can you test distribution/deployment? Are they the same now? Will they be the same after the recovery? Which changes are temporary? Which are permanent?

Your Business Model and the World Have Changed
If you’re business model still looks like your original assumptions a month ago, you’ve been living under a rock. Every part of your business model – not just product and customer – will change now. Recognize that in the post pandemic world, the map of surviving competitors will change, regulations will be changed, distribution channels may no longer be there, the reimbursement environment will be different, etc.

Ask everyone you interview, “What’s changed since the Covid-19 virus? What will the world look like after?” (Be specific. Ask questions not just about product, but about every other part of your business model.

Some Discovery Can’t Be Done Now
The reality is that some discovery and validation can’t be done right now. If you need to talk to people on the front-line of the Covid-19 fight (e.g. first responders, health care workers, delivery, network, remote work, telemedicine), ask yourself if your solution is relevant to making people healthier, safer, more effective?  If it is, then keep at it.

If not, don’t be tone deaf. In the midst of the crisis, testing ideas for businesses that are shutting down (travel, hospitality, etc.,) or from employees who are worried whether they’ll have a job will not work. Even if you have great new ideas for when recovery comes, most responses you’re going to get will be framed in the moment.

If so, consider putting your project on hold or find another problem to solve. Be conscientious about not taking people away from the important work required on the front line of this fight.

Lessons Learned

  • Customer Discovery and Validation can be easily done via video teleconferencing
  • Recognize that many potential interviewees are working from home
  • Break your MVP demos into small pieces, leaving time for people to respond
  • Adjust your questions to understand how customers’ situations have been changed by the pandemic
  • Some Customer Discovery can’t be done now

How To Keep Your Company Alive – Observe, Orient, Decide and Act

This article previously appeared in the Harvard Business Review. It’s been updated with new information about the U.S. Paycheck Protection program and the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program.

 

What cashflow-negative companies must do to survive

We’re in uncharted territory with the Covid-19 pandemic. But it’s increasingly looking grim.

Companies that outlast this crisis will have CEOs who can rapidly assess these new circumstances, recognize new patterns and opportunities, and act with urgency to take immediate action to pivot and restructure their companies. Those that don’t may not survive.

So here’s a five-day playbook to help CEOs of cash-flow negative startups, or ones about to go negative, assess the new normal and respond with speed and urgency.


Your Company Survival Depends on A Simple Formula
Your company’s survival in this downturn can be captured in a simple formula.

Survival = (speed of your understanding of the situation) x (the magnitude of the pivots/cuts/lifeboat choices you make) x (the speed of your time to make those changes)

Notice that the word speed appears twice. This is not the time for committees, study groups or widespread consensus building. Even with imperfect information, the future of your company depends on your ability to make rapid decisions and start acting.

If you’re a CEO who can’t quickly bias yourself for action and if you wait around for someone to tell you what to do, then your investors, or more likely the market, will make those decisions for you.

Huge segments of the economy have shut down: travel, hospitality, restaurants. Any place with a fixed cost that relies on foot traffic will come under pressure. With millions of people out of work in the next quarter, it’s obvious that discretionary purchases like furniture, fashion, lifestyle will take a hit. But other businesses like law firms, contracting firms, real estate firms, will take hits, too. The ripple effects won’t be obvious at first. Your customers will no longer be your customers. Your revenue plans are no longer valid. To understand the state of things, you need to rapidly assess your internal and external environments going forward.

Day 1: Prepare An Assessment of the Internal and External Environment:
What did the external and internal environment look like for your company today? What do you believe the world will look like for each of the next five quarters? For companies burning cash, such as startups, how much cash do you have? What’s your monthly cash burn at your new low revenue level? How many months of cash do you have?  Cut costs to stay alive for 24 months.

External Assessment

  1. State of the economy
    • Unemployment %
    • Shelter in place yes/no?
  2. Health of Your Current Target Market(s)
    • Actively buying? Not returning calls? Out of business?
  3. Emergence of New Market(s)
    • Are there new opportunities?
  4. Forecasted recovery date
    • Workers can return
    • Your customers start buying
  5. Check if the the Paycheck Protection Program, (here and here) which provides 100% federally guaranteed loans to small businesses, can apply to your company. Also see if the the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program applies.
  6. If you were raising money, validate whether your investors are still on board – with the same terms – or at all

Internal Assessment

  1. Operating Numbers
    • Liquidity and likely cash-out date under your worst-case scenario
    • Accounts receivable, accounts payable
    • Sales pipeline/forecast
    • Marketing programs spending
    • Payroll costs/other variable costs
  2. Sources of additional capital – For existing companies: debt commitments, and new lenders. Can the Paycheck Protection Program, (here and here) be a source of capital?For startups: source of VC money?

Don’t overthink this. And most importantly do not outsource this to your staff. Set up a war room and work with your CFO and C-level staff together until it’s done. That will start to get your team aligned about the size of the problem. The CEO should dial through as many of the largest existing customers to get a firsthand understanding of the magnitude of any revenue shortfall. If you were expecting angel or venture funding get on the phone to your investor(s). Some VC’s are walking away from signed term sheets. Others are cutting their valuations. The CFO should be on the phone to sources of additional capital. There is no market research that’s going to get it “right.” No one can predict how this plays out and for how long. All we know is that it’s going to be very different than it was a few weeks ago and likely going to be worse a few weeks from now.

Day 2: Iterate the assessment with your investors/board
Whatever assessment you develop, you need to get feedback from your board and investors. While you’re seeing just your own company, hopefully they’re getting data from multiple companies across a wider set of industries. If you’re a startup you’ll also get a sense of how much of a nuclear winter the funding scene is for your market/company.

Boards need to insist on an immediate assessment and be actively engaged. I listened in on a board call with an enterprise software company this week, and when the CEO said, “Our VP of sales assured me our pipeline won’t be affected.” Board members gave her a wakeup call: there was either going to be a much more realistic assessment tomorrow based on her first-hand customer conversations, or a new CEO. Some CEOs can and will rise to the occasion by themselves but having a unified board can accelerate the process.

But what if you think the situation is more dire and you disagree with your board’s assessment? CEOs in this position are going to face a major career decision – go along with advice you think will damage/destroy the company – or put your job on the line. Remember, a year from now no one wants to be the CEO of a company out of business whose lament is, “I did what the board told me to do.”

Once you have agreed on what the world will look like, it’s time to build the plan for your new company. This plan has three parts: Pivots to your new business model, changes to your operating plan, and what initiatives you save for the recovery. The plan must also take into account that this crisis has exposed how vulnerable companies are to a single source of supply. CEOs of companies that manufacture goods in the U.S. are about to face a moral dilemma. China and South Korea are starting their factories up again. Going forward, do you move your supply chain from China or at least create a second source from other countries? Do you source/build things there while laying off people here? What does your board suggest? What do you think is the right thing to do?

Days 3 and 4: Prepare new business model and operating plan
First, think about potential pivots. Ask yourself: Are there now new customers, new services and new channels to pursue? Which parts of your business model can now serve the new normal where business is booming – remote work/education, social cohesion over distance, telemedicine, home delivery, etc.?

For example:

  • If you had brick and mortar locations, how much can you pivot to Ecommerce (for basics), so customers can acquire goods without having to leave the house? Can you also offer specialized services?
  • Automated delivery services – the more people you can take out of the equation, the safer the product. Are there parts of your supply chain that can be repurposed? What about parts of your manufacturing lines?
  • Online/Virtual learning – schools will need to embrace virtual learning in a way they haven’t before.
  • B2B – cloud services, online meetings, virtual workforce management, collaboration tools. With more work from home happening, all of these services will see increased demand from companies
  • Virtual Travel/Tourism – how can consumers get out without leaving the safety of their house?
  • Remote Workforce automation – past the obvious conferencing tools, how do you maintain cohesion and coordination?
  • Remote health care – Can you do initial triaging/diagnosis online before having a patient come in?
  • Personalized Video Entertainment – VOD, AVOD, Short Form Social Sites, Twitch, etc. …

Next, plot out the changes to your operating plan. What cuts will you make to spending programs – marketing, service, manufacturing, R&D? What are your “lifeboat choices” – what layoffs to make, renegotiate payables, rents, leases, how to trade off cash management versus revenue growth? How can you shift focus to customer retention versus acquisition?

As part of these operating changes, make sure your heads of HR and finance recognize that they have entirely new jobs.

Your CFO now becomes the head of cash management. Draw down all debt commitments. Ask existing and new lenders for additional funding. Call all large vendors and ask for lower prices. If appropriate, offer to sign a longer agreement in exchange for lower cash payments in 2020 and 2021. See if your fixed costs are really fixed, or will they agree to defer some for higher payments at a future date. Make sure your CFO is familiar with the Paycheck Protection Program, (here and here) as a potential source of cash and to avoid/defer layoffs.

Nothing is more important than assuring the company can continue to pay its employees.

Your head of HR is now head of layoffs. He or she has 48 hours to grow into it, or you need to find someone else from the ranks to do it. Before layoffs, cut all salaries by 20%. Cut CXO salaries by at least 30%. Award equity to employees equal to the value of their reduced salaries. Try to protect the most vulnerable employees. Letting people go needs to be done with compassion and adequate compensation. And if you do it correctly, it will hopefully be done just once.

For those remaining employees, offer remote therapy to deal with the stress of working from home and pay for any equipment/network upgrades.

As you make these plans, remember: There will be a morning after. What changes in your industry will be permanent? If you have sufficient cash reserves, what initiatives do you want to keep in the lifeboat that may give you the ability to take advantage of these changes? To recover and grow quickly? Or to launch new products? Or if you have sufficient cash, now is the time to hire great people who were never available.

Although you prepared the internal and external assessment with just your C-level staff, now you want to rapidly engage the collective intelligence/wisdom of the company. Ask everyone in the company to suggest changes to the business model, operating plan and recovery plan.Your employees likely have ideas and see opportunities not visible in the C-suite. This will signal to every employee that now is the time for all-hands-on-deck and that you will be making decisions to quickly separate the crucial from the irrelevant.

You need to communicate, communicate and communicate some more to your employees about why you’re asking for their ideas. This is the perfect time to start a daily update from the C-suite. This is critical if your employees are working remotely. Let them know what you’re learning and then when you begin implementing changes, tell them why.

Day 5: Iterate with investors/board
Whatever business model, operating plan and recovery plan you come up with, you need to get feedback from your board. Keep in mind they’re likely dealing with multiple companies rapidly replanning, so remind them about the assessments you mutually agreed on. Then walk them through why the changes you’re suggesting match that plan. They may have seen new ideas from other companies in their portfolio so be open to additional suggestions.

Beyond the five-day plan, I want to specifically address two of the most challenging parts of the new operating plan you need to address: Layoffs and culture.

Carpenters use the aphorism “Measure twice, cut once.” The same applies to layoffs. In every downturn I’ve lived through, there were CEOs who handled layoffs as “a death by a thousand cuts.” For example, in a company with 1000 employees, they’d layoff a 100 people the first month, another 100 the next month, then a 100 the third month to downsize to 700 people over several months. Rather than being productive, the constant layoffs were demoralizing and paralyzed the remaining workforce. Employees saw that the direction was a downward spiral with no end in sight. And everyone worried: “Am I next?”  I’ve watched other CEOs immediately layoff 400 people and have 600 left. If/when they overshot, they could rehire 100 people (including some of the same people who had been laid off). While the mass layoffs created an immediate shock, people adjusted. They worried but began to feel more secure. When hiring began again, everyone was relieved: “The worst is over. Things are getting better.” (Remember to investigate whether the Paycheck Protection Program can save some or all of those jobs.)

To begin adjusting the culture to this new reality, communicate these business model and operating plan changes to your employees. Offer relentless optimism for survival, but ruthless cost-cutting (starting with the CXO salaries.) Let them know that as CEO you are going to be micromanaging for survival and expect each of them to do the same. You’re going to be relentless, direct and clear that once decisions are made, there are no disagreements. And remind them that together you are all working to save the company and their own jobs.

At some point this crisis will run its course. Running this five-day playbook will help your business survive so when the recovery does come, you’ll emerge stronger and ready to hire and grow again.

Lessons Learned

  • CEOs need to take control and take drastic action. Be decisive and do it immediately
  • Survival = (speed of your understanding of the situation) x (the magnitude of the pivots/cuts/lifeboat choices you make) x (the speed of your time to make those changes)
  • Involve the board and the rest of the company
  • Communicate with all employees daily
  • Move with speed and urgency, you have days — not weeks or months
  • As painful as it might be, when you make cuts do it once
  • Assume you’ll emerge on the other side. What will you wish you had kept?
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