Cowen Cafe: Moving forward

On Thursday, June 25, 2020, 50+ participants gathered for another invitation-only Cowen Cafe call, sponsored by NightOwl Global and Integreon. The question for the week: what has shifted since last week?

Recalibrating and moving forward

The discussion quickly turned to what we could do moving forward. This time, our current struggle was compared with WWI and how to address it framed in part by two analytical paradigms used to train military leadership.

This is like World War One and we are just in November of 1914 – there is a long way to go.

Law firm partner

One of the law firm participants turned to the past to help frame the few months in the immediate past and the many months ahead of us: “This is like World War One and we are just in November of 1914 – there is a long way to go. This is not the new normal, it is just what it is.”

This might sound like a pessimistic take on what lies ahead, but many of the participants put it in a positive way. The amount of anxiety seems to be lessening, they said; people are becoming more proactive; rather than calls with whining and complaining, the focus is on moving forward, on “getting things done”.

One assistant general counsel noted that at his company, they have decided to move forward with their summer internship program. They have found this to be a great opportunity to experiment with what they have learned decentralizing their work force in response to COVID. They have tried approaches they would not have dared to take on in the past, such as using word gaming in virtual training and openly soliciting ideas for all and sundry, with no idea too ridiculous.

Another in-house attorney said that last week this time they were on a planning call for fiscal year 2021 and, with the shift in paradigms forced on us by recent events, were able to go back to basics while at the same time focusing on innovating in ways not possible in the past.

The head of the discovery team at another corporation remarked that they have been able to begin shifting from the reactive mode of the past several months to one where they are finding the space to go back to being proactive.

Another corporate participant said things were picking up slowly – not as fast as he would like, but still starting up. He saw this as a time to scale up technologies and bring innovations from the lab to the office, and pressure-test them in an environment where not hitting perfection has become more acceptable.

And yet another corporate attendee said current circumstances have allowed they to re-think how they partner with some of their vendors, push the vendors to move out of their comfort zones and offer new capabilities and better practices, and invest in venture labs and other approaches that enable them to move past their current inner circle of vendors.

But with speed bumps

Not all were so upbeat. One participant reacted with “Whoa! Not so fast” – pointing to the difficult logistics of getting people back in the office, the loss of productivity as employees return to the office, and the uptick in COVID cases.

Another noted that they need to look at innovation a little differently than they did a year ago. Then, it was about how to bring in new technologies. Now, they are being asked to look at the bottom line and figure out how to innovate using only the people and resources they have today.

A law firm participant reported that for her this was Day Four being back in the office – she was one of the last participants to leave the office and one of the first to return. While she sees an opportunity to evaluate procedures and experiment with new ways of doing things, she was surprised at how much more productive she had been working from home than she is now that she is back in the office.

Frameworks for moving forward: VUCA and the OODA Loop

Two frameworks, both used to train military leadership, where offered as paradigms for moving forward in a positive way during these uncertain times.

One participant brought up VUCA, an acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Used by the Army War College since at least the late 1980s, VUCA represents a way for organizations to view their current and future state and make plans and decisions. For examples of how VUCA might be used, skim this short article, What VUCA Really Means for You, from Harvard Business Review or the materials on the Leadership Agility Certificate from Cornell University.

Another participant suggested looking at the OODA Loop, the observe–orient–decide–act cycle developed by military strategist and USAF Colonel John Boyd in the 1950s to express an approach to tactical engagement Boyd later expanded the idea to incorporate broad strategic action, as discussed in this podcast from the United States Army War College. Originally applied to combat operations, the OODA Loop has been used in various arenas including litigation, as indicated by The OODA Loop, a 2009 article in Plaintiff Magazine, and The OODA Loop and Faulty Lawyer Thinking: Reaching Accurate Orientation, a 2018 article published at Thomson Reuters’ Legal Executive Institute.

Leave a Reply