In his highly acclaimed 2021 book, Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know, Adam Grant implores leaders to think and act like scientists searching for truth. I’ll illustrate that approach through the concept of “perturbation theory” which is used by truth-seekers in science, math, and engineering, and apply it to crisis leadership.
At its core, perturbation theory involves taking an established system and giving it just a slight push to see how it will react. We call this push a “perturbation” – and by prodding the boundaries of known systems with these small shocks, we gain insight into what is possible beyond them. In other words, perturbation theory is our way of exploring what lies beyond the boundaries of what we know.
Crisis leadership is the practice of leading a group, business, or organization in times of catastrophe and ensuring chaos. In today’s pandemic “normal” and whatever follows it, leaders must adopt a shifted focus to lead strategically and with agility while managing uncertainty. Perturbation theory can provide insight into how decisions might be made that guide an organization through the crisis. By examining what happens when small changes are made in the workplace—say, to help optimize hybrid work, leaders can more effectively assess risk and make decisions that steer the organization through periods of crisis that have yet to be seen.
The application of perturbation theory to crisis leadership requires an understanding of what small changes could be made in different areas of the organization or facilities that would affect the outcome. For example, analyzing how a change in resources affects strategy or exploring how shifting organizational structure influences decision-making are potential applications of perturbation theory. Leaders need to have a clear understanding of their current state—the “unperturbed” system—as well as a sense of what type of shifts might lead them toward their desired outcome. By examining cause-and-effect relationships between various components of the system, leaders can better understand how small adjustments can create new paths forward.
In my book, A Test for Our Time: Crisis Leadership in the Next Normal, I share the following questions for leaders to ponder before they perturb their workplaces with new rules or approaches:
“Before demanding employees return to the office, leaders are obliged to first consider a few key questions.
1. In what ways is my presence in the office for my benefit?
2. In what ways is my presence in the office for the benefit of those I serve?
3. What are the direct and indirect costs and benefits of meetings? How do they compare for in-person and hybrid-working situations?
4. How do I think about the effectiveness of communication outside of meetings?
5. What have I learned about avoiding a crisis with preemptive communication during the pandemic?
“If leaders act before carefully answering and evaluating these questions, they may find themselves under duress, having to explain why people need to be in the office when they could be working from home just as easily. With as many crises looming out of sight but just around the corner, we don’t need to add any more avoidable problems to the mix.”
Overall, the application of perturbation theory to crisis leadership can provide a deeper understanding of how changes in the environment can create both risk and opportunity. Leaders can use this knowledge to make informed decisions that will help steer their organization through the most challenging times. Perturbation theory serves as a useful tool for decision-making in times of crisis and can provide insight into how small shifts in strategy or resources might lead to new pathways forward.