03 Apr Which Way is Up in a World Without Assumptions?
Being prepared is wonderful. It is also rare, overrated and possibly a luxury as easily coveted as it is unobtainable. Forethought can seem brilliant in the heat of a crisis, but hindsight delivers the more solid wisdom reminding us that preparation is another name for our assumptions about how things will go. In a crisis it is the assumptions that get tossed out of the diving plane or rocking boat. In a crisis everyone plays catch-up.
There’s no medal for being first in COVID-19 any more than seeming to be late is a crime. There is actually no such thing as being late in an onslaught like this one. If COVID-19 teaches anything it is that we exist in a dynamic biological system and our consciousness and rational processes, like our suddenly obsolete assumptions, are of limited use. As the virus makes cultural landfall in countries around the world the differences between the experiences of South Korea, New York City, Italy, Wuhan and Delhi should not be seen as verdicts to be used to excoriate and condemn as the crisis takes hold. The different experiences are part of the collective human resource we must mobilize to face the future. Our societies are all different and as such how the virus moves through them will be different.
When we suggest that “This Is A Drill”, we mean that it adds to our expertise for the next challenge, it does not diminish the severity of this current crisis. The great genius of business strategy and true leadership is to recognize that there are no “one offs.” Every event has something to teach and it is the responsibility of leadership to find that, capture it, mobilize it and all the time articulate that facing challenges, not avoiding them, is how great companies survive. There is a great temptation to assume that our powers of industrial might and scientific knowledge make all scenarios both predictable and “fixable.” But this, of course, is the very assumption that got us into this crisis in the first place and into any number of other global difficulties that will be ready and waiting when COVID-19 gets into the rear-view.
Climate change, for instance, is a looming crisis and addressing it is a staggering enterprise that calls for limits on so many social and economic practices that we can’t imagine relinquishing. But guess what we are getting good at right now? Relinquishing social and economic practices recently thought to be fixtures of human life, unchanging and unchangeable. Sports seasons, even the Olympics, have been cancelled and postponed, vast sectors of retail commerce and transportation all shut down in an instant. Nobody likes this but knowing that we can do it and still recover is a nugget of knowledge we may possess at the end of all this. It is this knowledge and experience of change and unimagined possibility that visionary business leaders can mobilize. This does not mean that we turn all of life into some 24-7 martial-law quarantine lockdown forever. It should mean that we are reminded of the community, corporate and national strengths that we can rely on right now.
Our national strength comes from how well we play catch-up as painful as that may sometimes be to admit. The ways in which unusual and unpredictable, decentralized and highly local institutions can be mobilized in a variety of ways and on their own initiative is a huge national asset. While we can point with some envy to apparent successes in China and South Korea in confronting the COVID crisis, we can’t forget that the potential for diverse localized action is profoundly limited in these countries because their government and economies are so centralized. We undaunted laggards also benefit from South Korean experiences and lessons learned by China in our own responses to the virus.
Adding value means staying focused on the future, shedding past assumptions while still always seeking to anticipate what the world will be like when we get there. We can be certain that we will get there, and that when we do, we will find a full, rich and certainly challenging world. We need only look at US history, a long tale of playing catch-up in nearly every national success. In both WWI and WWII the United States was profoundly unprepared in both technology and training. In both cases the future was not only unimaginable but extraordinarily positive for the US and other societies (think Japan) that were compelled by the wars to rebuild, rethink, and rededicate themselves to a national mission. There are bitter costs to be paid now in lives and prosperity as the virus and the panic it induces crashes on the beaches of every continent and nation.
The visionaries in business will feel the pain, deliver empathy to their teams and recognize and articulate with a laser focus that these costs of the present are also investments in the future. The more we own those costs as investments the more we can claim our standing to meet the next challenge. Global warming and some critical others are in the waiting room. Let’s get ready to welcome them in.