Fight, Flight or Freeze – How Technology Leaders are Showing Up Now

Fight, Flight or Freeze - How Technology Leaders are Showing Up Right Now

I know, I am breaking my own “no negative vibes” rule with this post related to the pandemic. But I thought it would be interesting to talk about how various technology leaders are responding to the COVID19 impact including the shift to remote working, social distancing and other restrictions.

Technology leaders today seem to be choosing one of 3 reactions to the COVID pandemic – Fight, Flight or Freeze. It is not surprising – these are the 3 hard-wired responses of the charged amygdala. I talked about the amygdala in my related post, Focus, How to Stay Productive in Uncertain Times.

Related Blog Post Focus! How to be Productive in Uncertain Times

The amygdala normally has a backseat role in our decision-making. But when we are stressed our or under attack, the amygdala will often step in and take charge. And since it acts faster than our executive brain, it often gets its way.

Let’s explore the implications of each of these responses.

Technology Leaders that Chose to Fight

I have a client that contacted me shortly after the stay at home directives were issued. They wanted to press forward with training workshops to help their suddenly remote teams maintain a high level of productivity. [See my related post, Are Your Newly Remote Teams Productive?] They had identified the following three needs:

  1. Help New Team Members – Team members new to the organization and agile ways of working needed basic information on how to organize and use Scrum or Kanban to deliver business value. It was especially critical since they shifted to all remote work. For this group, we offered a self-paced, online training course. Participants worked at their own pace to learn about agile, Scrum and Kanban using readings, videos and exercises.
  2. Strengthen Leaders in Specific Areas – Some leaders were interacting with self-organizing agile teams in ways that were counter-productive. They didn’t understand that their participation in meetings often led teams members to step back. They didn’t foster a continuous improvement mindset. They gave answers, told people what to do and solved problems, rather than using powerful questions to prompt curiosity and foster team solutions. For this group, we developed customized training targeted to address the issues that had been identified.
  3. Boost Scrum Master Skills – Finally, they recognized that they had a wide variance in experience and skill level in their Scrum Masters. In addition to addressing some basic Scrum training, they wanted to foster community among this group and shared learnings. For this group, some exploratory workshops were conducted that allowed the Scrum Masters to learn from each other and to identify gaps.

I was inspired that this client made an investment in this time of uncertainty. Of all the possible actions, they chose to invest. They recognized that the COVID pandemic provided them a unique opportunity to make a permanent change in the way that they operated. They wanted to leverage agile ways of working to improve their business agility. They were fighting!

They were not alone. A recent survey by showed that agile adoption increased as a result of the COVID19 threat.

And their employees responded to the challenge. Employees were reminded of the purpose of the organization and the members that they served. This provided employees something to rally around – it was a path out of listlessness and a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

The possible downside of fighting is that we may not be fighting the right fight. Or perhaps we should be keeping our powder dry until the right opportunities present themselves.

Technology Leaders that Took Flight

I had another client who had 2 agile pilot projects underway. This was the organizations first foray into agile ways of working and they were seeing some positive early results from their pilots.

When the severity of the COVID crisis was revealed, they decided to stop. They immediately quit all their pilot projects and did everything they could to reduce the sunk cost.

This was not a temporary stop. This was an end to the investment. They were going to hunker down, resort to traditional/plan-driven PM-led ways of working. They didn’t see a return on investment in agile ways of working, and they chose to save their schmeckles instead.

Technology Leaders that Froze

There were also tech leaders that froze. In fact, the vast majority of our clients froze. They took a “let’s wait and see” attitude and they are still in the holding pattern.

Rizwan Khan is a colleague of mine who works at Schaffer Consulting. He and I were comparing notes and noticed the same trend among clients. Rizwan described it as frozen: “they can’t get out of the mud”. When he looked at the various clients in his portfolio, he found that size was positively correlated with the depth of the freeze. That is, the bigger organizations tended to be more frozen.

Freezing is OK for the short run. Heck, you don’t know what is coming at you.

Now we are about to enter our 3rd month of uncertainty. You can’t wait forever for for direction. Employees will find it draining. Waiting and worrying is emotional work and a waste of our energy and talent. It is time we could be spending learning, leading and connecting.

Perhaps it is time to get unfrozen.

Action Steps

Take a moment to evaluate how you are showing up right now. Did you choose fight, flight or freeze? What should your stance be?

If you are Fighting –  For those of you who chose to fight, here are some key questions to ask:

  • Are you fighting for the right things?
  • Should you be fighting at all?
  • Is there any advantage to pause the fighting so that you keep your options open to see what other opportunities may open up?
  • What is the energy level of your employees – do they still have fight in them?

If you are in Flight – For those of you who took flight, here are some key questions to ask:

  • Is running away your best option right now?
  • Does it make sense to cut your losses?
  • Are you sacrificing long term gains for short term safety?
  • Are you running toward something more valuable for the health of your organization and your employees?

If you are Frozen – For those that Froze, here are some questions to consider:

  • Is there an opportunity cost to your lack of action?
  • What might be the best next step you could take?
  • How does your being frozen impact the teams and employees you are responsible for?
  • Is there an opportunity to act decisively now to improve your tooling or staff up your organization.
  • What opportunities can you provide to encourage your employees to learn, lead and connect?
  • Given your size, how long will it take you to get moving again if you decide to thaw?

As always, I’d love to hear about your experience.

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By Anthony Mersino

Anthony Mersino is the founder of Vitality Chicago, an Agile Training and Coaching firm devoted to helping Teams THRIVE and Organizations TRANSFORM. He is also the author of two books, Agile Project Management, and Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers.

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