The recent ‘Beast From the East’ weather front that turned much of the UK into a Siberian wasteland didn’t just startle the public – it made quite an impact upon the nation’s managers, too. Indeed, online retailer Ocado has announced that the blizzard cost it £4 million in sales, taking the edge off its trading results for the first quarter of 2018.

However, in comments to The Guardian, Ocado finance director Duncan Tatton-Brown hailed the firm’s performance amid the sudden onrush of snow and ice, saying: “I’ve never seen weather like this in the time I’ve been at Ocado – but despite that we delivered to 296,000 customers in pretty extreme conditions.”

His words were echoed by chief executive Tim Steiner, who said: “I would like to take this opportunity to thank all my colleagues who nonetheless succeeded in delivering nearly 300,000 orders over the last week of the quarter, often in the most trying conditions.”

While the firm’s leaders were clearly surprised by the depth of the Beast’s chill, the company as a whole responded effectively and its quarterly performance is poised to meet City expectations.

In a recent Forbes article, management journalist Roger Tapp explains that the type of management decisions that typically emerge during surprise events “rely heavily or exclusively on divergent thinking”. He points out: “These are decisions that need a high level of creativity, of innovation and of flexibility … Typically, the situation has not been experienced before, so individuals cannot or should not draw on previous knowledge.”

Does that hold true in all cases? And which other qualities help leaders to respond effectively to surprise events?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “The starting point for any unexpected happening, or when something goes wrong, is: ‘What will make it better? What will put it right? What will minimise the impact?’ And then: ‘How are we going to do it?’ That’s where all the time and energy should be spent, which certainly seems to have been the case with Ocado’s performance during the extreme cold snap. The time to get into questions such as ‘How did this happen?’ and ‘How can we prevent it from happening again is after the crisis has been dealt with.”

Cooper points out: “depending upon the sort of thinker you are and your role in the organisation, there’s often a tendency to go down the road of ‘This shouldn’t happen’. Or to fall into a stunned, helpless response, rather than plug into a high-energy, solutions-focused sense of urgency. Interestingly, we’ve seen quite an instructive story this week about BBC journalist Frank Gardner’s experience of being trapped on a plane at Heathrow for almost two hours, after his wheelchair was sent ahead into the terminal in error. Heathrow’s chief executive John Holland-Kaye said in the wake of the incident that every decision his employees make should be examined through the customer’s eyes.”

She notes: “that certainly seems to have been the case with Ocado’s response to the Beast From the East: what’s the customer going to think about the lack of a delivery? Are they just going to say, ‘Well – what can you do?’ Or are they going to be thinking in a rather more agitated way about all the various fallback plans they’re going to have to devise to round up all the supplies they were expecting?

“Is a snow day on firms’ risk registers? What are you going to do when you are unable to follow your expected plans? Could you, hypothetically, send all the deliveries to a central point in certain towns and then everyone comes to collect their items from that location? Unusual, and with potential security issues – but a solution. That’s what has to come into play during unexpected events: the mentality that’s capable of hatching alternative plans.”

Cooper adds: “It’s about thinking, ‘Oh – there must be more than one way to carry out this task – let’s think firstly about the solution, then about the customer, and then, in a distant third, about how to minimise the impact should a similar situation ever arise.’ The thinking skills required to embrace such challenges are enthusiasm, energy and good humour: ‘Let’s get it done, let’s solve this problem, and let’s not over-engage with how unfortunate the scenario is.’ It’s not about being the victim – it’s about being the problem solver.”

For further thoughts on solving problems, check out these learning resources from the Institute

Image of Beast From the East hitting Dublin courtesy of Bartosz Luczak, via Shutterstock