By Ryan Gardner, Vice President and Continuous Improvement Manager, UMB Financial Corporation
As the darkness of the night sky slowly receded, our squad leader shouted, “Eyes up! Keep your heads on a swivel and do what you were trained to do!” We were at the end of a 12-hour training exercise in the Nevada desert. With my uniform caked in dirt and grime, I tried to blink away the fogginess of sleep deprivation from the turret of my Humvee. We’d been running convoy drills all night. Exercise after exercise, we were met with a new situation—an ambush, an improvised explosive device (IED), or sometimes, nothing at all. The cadre, experts in creating chaos, continuously threw something new at us. Just as things were starting to go as planned, we were confronted by some new factor that nobody had taken into consideration.
As the sun peeked over the horizon, the first shots rang out. In a simulated attack, the opposing force came at us with everything. In a full-force ambush, heavy machine guns pounded the convoy with simulated rounds from three directions. Just as we’d been trained, we stopped the vehicles, dismounted, and set up a secure perimeter to return fire. This time, however, the cadre informed us that all communications were down. In all previous exercises, despite the threat we had encountered, we at least had the ability to communicate and, more importantly, coordinate amongst squad members. This time however, the lack of communication and lack of contingency planning left us in chaos. It was a (simulated) slaughter. Our squad took massive casualties before having to fall back to base. When we debriefed afterwards, the cadre gave a valuable lesson. “You will never be able to account for everything. You will find yourself in scenarios that are impossible to predict. When you find yourself up that proverbial creek without a paddle you have one option—you improvise, you adapt, and you overcome.”
It’s been 12 years since that training, and yet I find myself reflecting on that lesson again. Over the past few weeks, the global community has been rocked by Covid-19. A sleeping monster that has lurked on the horizon has decided to rear its head and, in an instant, business as usual is a thing of the past. Social distancing has disrupted workforces resulting in organizations scrambling to reimplement operations with almost entirely remote teams. Activities as mundane as passing physical paper to a teammate and face-to-face meetings have been rendered obsolete.
When that first contact is made, and the plan breaks down, you do whatever you can to merely survive. Find cover, regain your bearings, and hold fast. Logistically, this stage is a nightmare but ironically, it can be the easiest stage emotionally because there isn’t much time to reflect on what’s happening. We saw this recently as communities locked down to slow the spread of the virus. In what felt like an instant, schools, offices, stores, restaurants—everything—were closed. Life quickly shifted to a place where many of us found ourselves scrambling to wear multiple hats—a professional, a parent, a math teacher. With little to no information on what was happening or what to expect, we simply reacted as best we could. The ferocity at which the ambush engulfed us left little room for much else beyond pure reaction and preservation.
At times, job titles can become fluid in the military. A service member may have enlisted as a mechanic, a medic or a supply manager—but you’re a soldier first. In emergent situations everyone is expected to be part of the team and stand a post. During this pandemic, I witnessed our IT partners launch into action to ensure operations could continue with a remote workforce. Job titles temporarily became obsolete and “other duties as assigned” took on a whole new meaning. I watched a workflow developer use his prior experience in computer programming to help support an RPA initiative that took immediate priority to ensure notifications of incoming wires made it to their respective teams on time. In commercial banking, scores of associates pitched in to support small businesses accessing CARES Act programs, helping them receive loans they critically needed. We came together to accomplish the mission.
“What the hell do we do,” shouted one squad member. “Fall back and regroup,” was the response. It was the only thing left to do. This is the stage where things get hard. Really hard. Enough time has passed that the reality of the moment sets in. It is also during this stage that the hardest of decisions are made. You begin to triage the situation. Determinations must be made on what can still be accomplished, what can be salvaged, and, tragically, what must be left behind. We are here now, and unfortunately, it is this stage where the fear creeps in. How long will this last? What’s next? What information is real? What will the world look like when this is over?
As an RPA center of excellence, several recent meetings have centered on this topic. Which projects are now critical, which must be pushed out or abandoned, and how can we access the resources needed to get the job done? Additionally, a new SharePoint administrator joined the team during the pandemic and, once it was discovered that he had experience with RPA, his scope of work was adjusted. He has been called upon to help push some crucial RPA projects across the finish line, which takes his work beyond his initial expectations.
The unknowns can become overwhelming, but this is the time we must act. It has been said that fear causes hesitation and hesitation causes your greatest fear to come true. Across industries, we’re beginning to calm our nerves, adjust and steady our aim. Educators have found ways to keep learning going for all ages through virtual classrooms. Manufacturers are answering the world’s call by turning their focus to personal protective equipment (PPE). Even distilleries are doing their part by replacing bottles of whiskey with bottles of hand sanitizer. We are adapting. We may have been brought to our knees, but we are not out of the fight.
As this change has occurred, it has become evident how important process efficiency and automation initiatives are. Employees, maybe more than ever, are being asked to get creative with how we can keep moving with limited resources. We all are being tasked with figuring out how to come together in a world that physically is forcing us apart. As we look back out into the fray, it is imperative to lean on those around us. If there is one thing I learned in my time in the Air Force, it’s that through collective action and teamwork, the odds begin to shift back in your favor. Forged in the flames of adversity, a renewed sense of togetherness can be your most powerful tool.
If there is a silver lining to take away from all of this, it is that innovation comes from change, especially when through necessity. With new frontiers come new opportunities. Take this occasion to connect with and support each other. While life is moving a little slower for all of us, take a moment to reach out to someone and float that idea that’s been sitting on the shelf. We are all in this together. One team. One fight. Bruised but not beaten. We’ve got this.
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