Operations and Decision-Making in a Crisis: A Q&A With Bellwether’s Gwen Baker

At Bellwether, we’re responding to the COVID-19 reality alongside our clients and partners — while helping them address the situation we all face. 

Many leaders are asking about how they can steer their organizations honestly and transparently during these turbulent times. What adjustments or adaptations to organizational operations are necessary? 

Quote from Bellwether Education Partners' Chief Operating Officer Gwen Baker: "A lot of people will think process is just bureaucracy — you’re trying to control something you can’t control. But putting systems in place, or relying on existing systems, will prevent you from wasting time when you don’t have any spare time."

As Bellwether’s Chief Operating Officer, Gwen Baker has been sending regular communications to our team about policy changes in light of COVID-19, but also encouraging us to have grace for ourselves and one another. I chatted with Gwen to learn more about being an organizational leader in this time of crisis.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

As Bellwether’s lead on operations, what things are currently on your mind regarding systems and decision-making?

The thing I really hold on to is the importance of process. A lot of people will think process is just bureaucracy — you’re trying to control something you can’t control. But putting systems in place, or relying on existing systems, will prevent you from wasting time when you don’t have any spare time. If you have a process that works, it allows you to put your brain power behind things that really need your attention.

For example, I think in education and nonprofits, people tend to orient to shared decision-making. And while in times of calm, you can slow down and do stakeholder engagement, in a time of crisis, you may miss the window when the decision could have been made and done a lot of good.

There are different decision-making frameworks we’ve seen organizations use: RAPID, RACI, MOCHA, and others. The most important thing is to name who the decision-maker is and the breadth of input she will be seeking, so there are no illusions around who’s responsible. 

Have any internal processes changed at Bellwether since the outbreak of COVID-19?

RAPID is a process we used before COVID-19 and we will really lean on it now. But Bellwether’s Partner team has also been trying out a process from software development called Stand Up. We have very little time to spare, and Stand Up is a timeboxed way to focus on what’s important. Using this new protocol, each priority owner reports out on progress made against goals and asks for concrete help, input, or clarification. To facilitate good information flow, we communicated organization-wide the priorities and their “owners” in advance. It’s been going well so far: I was able to end a meeting 22 minutes early last week!

I’ve heard you and other colleagues talk about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in relation to students right now. Does that also apply to adults?

That concept of basic needs is absolutely relevant. I know that while adults at Bellwether are focused on the work, they may also be taking care of their children — or their parents — and are worrying about balancing it all. They are trying to manage the hierarchy of needs for themselves and for other people as primary caregivers.

What principles have you had in mind as you’ve communicated coronavirus-related updates to the BW team?

As we’ve been thinking about crisis communications, we’ve tried to value that we don’t always have the right answer. But we acknowledge that people need an answer, so we prioritize connecting regularly.

I’ve been balancing policy and tactical information with things that aren’t so technical. I recognize that people are human. I’ve been following my colleagues’ advice on being empathetic.

I’m thinking about psychological safety: I want our staff to be able to say “I’m not working at 100% because I’m too stressed out.” I’ve been giving people time and space. The work we do is important, but we’re not coming up with a cure for COVID-19. Having grace and humor is important: taking care of the people around us will enable us to keep driving impact.

For more blog resources on COVID-19, click here, or see a list of external resources on our website.