Like the human body, organizations experience both acute and chronic conditions, and leaders should treat them differently, writes executive coach and former CIO, Doug Moran.

About 15 years ago, I was involved in a minor accident that landed me in the emergency room with a gash on my arm that required stitches. From the moment the golf cart started to roll over (there is probably another blog post there) until my discharge from the hospital, I experienced a lot of things – pain, fear, and embarrassment among them.  Despite great medical care, the wound became infected and required a course of I.V. antibiotics. Despite that setback, the combination of antibiotics and basic wound care had me back to normal in a matter of weeks. 

While removing the sutures, my doctor commented on my blood pressure and my weight, both of which had been creeping up over the preceding years. A full physical exam confirmed his concerns about my overall health. My blood pressure and weight were high, and so was my cholesterol. None of these problems was going to addressed in a matter of weeks. Through a few years of neglect, I had created some chronic conditions that would take me the next 18 months to correct. 

Chronic vs. acute conditions

That’s how it goes with the human body.  We often experience acute conditions like traumatic injuries that can be scary, painful and even life-threatening. They typically come on quickly and can be treated with similar speed.  We also experience chronic conditions like obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. These come on over the course of months, years, or even decades, and correcting them can also take significant investments of time, energy, and dedication.

Organizations are no different. They experience acute challenges that arise quickly and require immediate and decisive actions. These challenges require the workplace equivalent to sutures and antibiotics. Organizations also experience chronic conditions that take years to manifest themselves, and these require significant organizational changes to be properly addressed.  

Recognize the distinction

The problem is that we fail to recognize this important distinction. We want quick resolutions to problems that took years to create.  We want a magic pill that will make the problem go away rather than adopting new behaviors that address the root causes. 

Information security is the perfect example of the importance of recognizing and understanding this distinction. Cyber-attacks pose a constant and significant acute threat to every organization. A security breaches is the stereotypical acute condition. When a breach occurs, organizations must respond quickly and decisively. The goal is to eliminate the immediate threat and stabilize the situation. This is not the time to address the underlying vulnerabilities that enabled the breach in the first place. 

However, must of us know too well that many of our greatest cybersecurity vulnerabilities are rooted in years of decisions. Many of the CIOs I coach lament the threats created by older legacy systems that should have been retired or replaced, but weren’t because of organizational inertia or funding constraints. Regardless of the reason, these chronic vulnerabilities are often ignored until acute events bring them to light.  

Respond appropriately

As leaders, our job is to ensure that our organizations recognize and distinguish between acute and chronic conditions, so we can respond appropriately. We must move quickly and decisively to address the acute conditions and purposefully and rigorously to address the chronic. The problem is we live in a society that craves and rewards immediate results. Tackling acute problems gives us rapid tangible results; fixing chronic conditions does not. It is easy to rally support to stop a cyber-attack once it’s started, but sustaining support for addressing the chronic vulnerabilities requires hard work and dedication.  

Because addressing chronic conditions can take months (or even years), maintaining enthusiasm and positive energy can be difficult.  In their Harvard Business Review article, “The Power of Small Wins in Times of Panic,” Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer describe how to deal with this challenge. They write about the importance of celebrating the minor milestones that ultimately leads to long-term success.  

Great leaders look for ways to highlight the daily successes that contribute to significant change. They keep people focused on the long-term prize by ensuring that everyone understands how their daily activities contribute to it.  This is not limited to the teams we lead. To maintain organizational support, we must highlight and promote the accomplishments to all of our stakeholders. This focus can keep us on the path to recovery and long-term health. 

Fifteen years later, I still have a scar on my elbow that reminds me of two things. First, never go golfing with those particular friends again. And second, continue the lifestyle changes that enabled me to reverse the chronic conditions and to prevent them from resurfacing. That’s the last lesson here. Once we fix our chronic conditions, we must ensure they don’t reappear. Maintaining the results is a lot easier than attaining them. That means we must make the organizational decisions equivalent to eating well and exercising regularly, so we can prevent recurrence.  Without that continued investment and focus, more chronic conditions will replace those you worked so hard to eliminate.

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