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How to Adapt in the Face of Pressure and Uncertainty

As a government technology leader, you’ve been adapting hard for nearly two months now. A metaphorical COVID-19 boulder has rolled into your community pond, and your systems, strategies, and staff have been put to the test.

Maybe this a moment you prepared for over and over in your head or tested in continuity of operations planning exercises. Or, perhaps it’s been an opportunity for you to rise to the challenge. Either way, you’ve got this. You have to—and that’s a powerful responsibility.

You’re mobilizing a workforce that likely isn’t used to working remotely, guiding a broad spectrum of users with differing proficiencies, meeting unprecedented needs to secure yet amplify your networks, and quickly establishing systems to meet rising or shrinking demands. All while tracking and sharing critical data to keep your community informed and request future federal reimbursement.

You’ve got a lot on your plate, but hopefully, one thing you can take away from this pandemic is that you can roll with the punches and make the changes you need to happen. Whether you see it or not, you are adapting in the face of incredible pressure and uncertainty, and knowing that should give you confidence the next time you face a similar threat or challenge.

The truth is, we’re likely not done yet. Philosopher George Santayana pointed out, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” With history as our teacher, this is just the first wave. During the 1918 Flu Pandemic, there was a second wave of infections that began roughly six weeks after the initial wave of infections, with about four months between the peaks of the first and second waves. This trend means you will very likely need to scale down services and then scale up in response to the coronavirus again. You’ll need to prove your adaptiveness again and build resilience for your employees and your community.

Two months into COVID-19 response, and you know what you’re capable of. You can pinpoint where you’re ready and where you need to improve your systems, strategies, staff and, of course, self. Now’s the time to start becoming a more resilient individual and building more adaptive teams and systems. Here are three key lessons that can help you on that journey:



As a civic innovator and life-long entrepreneur, I know that adaptability is all about building resilience. As an individual, we become better innovators when we are mentally resilient. In crisis, systems that are resilient face far less dire consequences. So, governmental entities that regularly push the boundaries by innovating are forming a habit that helps them be more resilient in a crisis. It is the doing that builds that habit and the confidence to handle change.

If you regularly innovated before this crisis, chances are you had confidence in your ability to adapt and were able to make the changes needed. If you rarely innovated, you were probably nervous. But now, you know you can—because you had to. You’ve adapted and survived and now you can turn that adaptiveness into a habit. If you make it a habit to make yourself a little uncomfortable, you’ll have the confidence when its time to adapt again. Because it’s what will come naturally.


As I said, we’re not done yet. To build resilience, we need to prepare the troops for more radical change by clearly communicating the facts of the situation and the vision of what happens next. Now is an excellent time to overcommunicate what you know to get everyone on the same page. Be candid, and be sure you’re letting everyone know the facts as they unfold. Even if those facts are uncomfortable.

This requires deep empathy. The hard facts must be laid out candidly and compassionately. Each person is having a very individual and powerful experience that they will never forget. This means that it will take an exceptional leader to stay on top of the emotional state of their team as this unfolds. By overcommunicating and laying out the facts directly and empathetically, it will shorten the time it takes your team to adapt.


No matter what type of boulder lands in your community pond, you must be prepared and proactive. To get out ahead of a crisis, you can’t just react to what’s in front of you. You need to become an expert in spotting and planning for the ripples headed your way. Here’s how it works:

  1. Focus on your metaphorical boulder: “What important issue am I focusing on?”
  2. Identify your first-order ripples: “What will happen right after this boulder hits the water?”
  3. Spot your second-order ripples: “What will happen next in response to the first ripples?”
  4. Plan: “What needs to happen for the best outcome?”
  5. Prioritize and enact: “What can I do right now that will make the most impact?”

There you have it. Simple, yet incredibly effective. This practice of “rippling” helps us focus on the nexus of what’s important and what we can do to influence it—hopefully getting ahead of the next crisis or building on the next opportunity so we can help steer the outcome. Here’s a simple example I’m sure will resonate:

Example of Rippling Amid COVID-19 Response

  • Issue: Toilet paper sells out. What happens next?
  • Ripple One: Substitute products, like paper towels, tissues, and baby wipes will sell out. Then what happens next?
  • Ripple Two: If people can’t get staple items like paper and baby products, other staples will start selling out, such as milk, eggs, diapers, bread, and chicken. What needs to happen
  • Plan: We need to stop people from panic buying so that everyone has enough of the products they need. What can I do right now that will have the most impact?
  • Prioritize: Right now, I can limit purchases to 3 items per household to prevent hoarding. 


Wondering how your team can get started with rippling? What strategies can you use today to help steer your community towards sustainability and resilience? Here are a few ideas to get you started (if you haven’t already):


The $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act became law on March 27, 2020, providing $150 billion to states and local governments to help respond to the pandemic and economic crisis caused by COVID-19. Start prepping now by forming a grants team and tracking the required data points. Later, when you’re going after competitive stimulus funding that’s coming or submitting for FEMA reimbursement, you’ll be glad you prepared.

Infrastructure needs are always targeted for stimulus funding, so start compiling a list of your IT and physical infrastructure needs—public works, utilities, facilities—and begin building your case now. It has already been stated by members of both political parties that this $150 billion will likely not be enough and further stimulus will likely be needed. This means that $150 billion in the CARES act will likely be the tip of the funding iceberg for those who are ready. Be ready.


Just like with the 1918 Flu Pandemic, you know the next wave of infections is coming. What services will you need to scale down or back up again to minimize the impact? If you could rewind February and March and do it all over again, what would you do differently? Furthermore, every person not being fully utilized remotely should be working on emergency planning and research for the next wave in 3-4 months, cataloging your best practices and ideas.


This is a great time to torpedo “the way we’ve always done it” and put a cross-departmental team together that can work on the ripples of opportunity that are ahead. Chances are your organization learned how deeply unsafe “the way we’ve always done it” actually is through this experience. What programs or practices didn’t work as you tried to adapt and how can you rethink how they are provided? Did your paper processes fail you when you tried to operate virtually? How did you communicate with your team when you couldn’t connect face to face? How will we deal with things like scaling services, what programs are essential, community coordination, public interaction, remote services, regional consolidation of services, readiness for the next wave, etc.?


When the crisis is over, this team can continue to lean in on innovation and areas of opportunity in the organization. Right now, however, is a great time to have a team specifically looking for opportunities and mitigating risk by innovating and looking ahead.


Think about where you could build a better bridge of trust with the community during the next wave by visualizing information, communicating in a “non-government” way, or providing resources directly to residents more quickly. Make it all mobile-friendly. Think about affected populations that you could help serve them better. Consider how you could build more compassion into what you do.

The opportunity is there for you to embrace the silver lining in all this chaos by improving your team’s resilience, identifying the ripples ahead, planning preventative measures, redefining risk, and prioritizing what’s next. Right now, you have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restore and build trust in government. Communities that embrace this moment and do what’s necessary to protect and empower their residents compassionately will build more trust than 1,000 town halls could ever do. If you got into government to make a difference, this is your moment! You may not have wanted it like this, but your moment is here if you want it. Right now. And, you’ve got this.

Psst: This blog was originally featured on Head there now for more case studies and stories on local government technology innovation.