Skip to main content

Lessons from COVID-19 crisis, a reflection

| December 15, 2020

by Keli Amann

[Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Keli Amann, User Experience Specialist, Office of the Vice Provost for Technology & Learning, Stanford University. She is a recent MOR program alum.  Keli may be reached at [email protected].]
Editorial note: The original version of this essay was written in the early days of the COVID-19 crisis.  As we begin to draw 2020 to a close, the perspective of this essay makes a connection between where we were at the start of the pandemic, where we are now, and the pervasive leadership lessons of leading at this time.
I’m reflecting on some of the inspiring stories of leadership at all levels that have emerged from this crisis, and how they relate to some personal experiences and our role as leaders. Here are three themes I’ve seen:
1. Put the call out and people will step up
In Mid-March, California Gavin Newsom put out a call to the state’s CEOs for masks, gloves, and ventilators; all in painfully short supply.  Bloom Energy, which makes fuel cells, had experience with pumps and hoses similar to those used in ventilators.1  So when Newsom tapped the CEO directly the following week to ask if they could refurbish ventilators, that question made its way to engineer Joe Tavi. That night he made a pot of coffee, downloaded a 300 page pdf; by 4 AM he called his boss and said “yes” they could do it.2 So when over a thousand broken ventilators arrived from the national stockpile, Bloom was able to readily refurbish them for use.
In the face of a crisis, there are many people who are able and want to help.  However, they often don’t know how to direct their energy. It is a blessing when someone steps forward to get the ball rolling and set a direction. I know this not only from work, but from my personal life. Nine years ago, Barbara, a classmate from high school, was in need of a bone marrow donor. She was not a close friend but there was something about her being a mother of two boys that struck a chord. I reached out to friends in the Bay Area to see if we could do a drive to register people for the Asian American Donor Program because this is a demographic that is not well represented in the national bone marrow registry. In a few weekends, there would be a summer festival at a local Buddhist temple that would have a high attendance of Asian Americans. I contacted other friends who knew the leadership there and was able to get a table. People volunteered to run the registration table all weekend, even people who had never met Barbara. While not directly through our efforts, Barbara found a match and is alive.  We also got cheek swabs from fifty individuals who could help others down the road.  What are ways we can step up and show initiative in the face of continuing uncertainties?
2. The importance of psychological safety
In early March, our group had our first situation room meeting around COVID-19. We were briefed as to what was happening at a higher level by our CTO, Richard Webber: finals would need to take place either from residences or from homes. The final weeks of class would not be in person.
You might hear in movies that “failure is not an option.” But instead our CTO said, as best as I can remember: “We need your ideas and it is mission critical, we are not necessarily going to be able to do it all, we may need to triage and we might make mistakes, but we are going to share what we know with each other and talk about it and we are going to do our best.” With that, he let us know he would have our backs, that we would need to have each other’s backs, and inspired us not to fail. It created an atmosphere of psychological safety where we could propose ideas that might fail but would not be blamed.  That foundation of psychological safety is as important now as it was in the first week of the pandemic.
3. The answer is in the room (and outside it); relationships matter
I’ve never given much thought to the phrase, “The answer is in the room” even though MOR veteran Rick Fredericks said it all the time when he came to our campus. I think he meant we should start talking to each other because through our collective knowledge and collaboration, we’d find we have what we needed.
But “the room” of course is much bigger than the people physically there, especially if you move those in the room to leverage their relationships. Now more than ever we are continually asked to solve problems we never anticipated; either you need a breath of knowledge or you better know people who do.
Our group runs some key assets including our LMS Canvas and all the computer clusters and their associated software.  We also have close relationships with teams who run other foundational teaching and learning applications.  Because we had a Slack channel that was reporting on student feedback, we spotted trends of emerging student needs and were able to design a fast way to meet those needs. Some of this leveraged prior relationships, others leveraged ones we had to build on the fly.  Again, the value of relationships and knowing the answer is in the room have been a pervasive lesson throughout this crisis.
None of us is alone in this continued ultramarathon of a journey.  I feel blessed to be in the higher education community today.
Stay safe and healthy and don’t hesitate to reach out,