Leadership in crisis - bridging the gap from a mechanistic to a living systems approach
The current Coronavirus pandemic provides a stark context for reconsidering conventional leadership approaches. We need a quantum leap in leadership praxis to a new process -orientated style.
During the second world war British military engineers designed the portable Bailey bridge to cross rivers after the retreating German forces had blown up the existing bridges to stop the advance of the Allies. Here we offer some idea of how that Bailey bridge in leadership thinking might look in this current pandemic.
Globally leaders must now be asking how best their institutions, organisations and communities might:
Again from 1918 - 1920 the Spanish flu saw 50 million fatalities world-wide - and it killed 300 000 South Africans: 6% of the population. The elementary mistake identified then was that authorities had not properly identified and quarantined people effectively in the early stages.
The current HIV-Aids epidemic in South Africa sees 7.7 million infected - there were 71,000 fatalities in 2018 alone. Some 20% of adult population aged 15 - 49 is infected with 60% being women. Thankfully the govt-sponsored universal antiretroviral drug roll-out has increased average longevity from 59 to 63. Here the elementary mistake was the critical time lost at a time when the ruling ANC government denied the reality of the epidemic. This failure to act is conservatively estimated to have accounted for 330 000 deaths - similar in number all South Africans killed during the Spanish flu.
This time South African the government's response has been proactive and timely - but it faces significant capacity issues - see this BBC report lauding President Ramaphosa's proactive response and the realistic endorsement by Minister of Health, Dr Mkhize:
It seems the core lesson remains the need for prompt, even radical universal response; efficiently providing the most effective treatment available and, of course, taking all required measures to prevent the further spread of disease.
Yet now in the 21st century, 100 years after the devastating Spanish flu epidemic, governments are at odds, internally and with each other, on how best to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. Taiwan is seen as a model of decisive and effective management of the disease. There was a prepared command centre with an effective capacity to monitor and track the spread of infections. By contrast the United States' response is seen as chaotic, Britain's response as vacillating, and Sweden's laissez-faire response as counterintuitive, even negligent.
Enduring the Covid-19 pandemic is certainly going to be a confusing and trying time for all - especially for the authorities.This crisis emphasises leadership's overdue recognition of the need to make a leap in competence in decision-making; and that leap must be from linear and reductionistic thinking to a non-linear holistic perspective and practice. With our Complex Adaptive Intelligence approach we endeavour to offer a non-academic and practical thinking process for addressing the increasingly complex issues of this VUCA world.
Someone once said: "Nature abhors a straight line." From the mechanistic perspective this is particularly challenging. During the Newtonian scientific era we endeavoured to shape the natural world like a machine. We thought we could build into it the levers to control her. But nature, viruses included, does not respond to linear logic. Life itself functions with 'complex adaptive intelligence'. And we all urgently need to retrieve that capacity to learn to co-exist sustainably and creatively with our precious life-giving milieu.
The core VUCA features we are dealing with in this crisis are firstly volatility as we struggle to come to grips with exponential emergence of infections and the tragic accompanying deaths. Secondly there is uncertainty as we ponder when normalcy might return and become increasingly fearful, of not only the economic, but also the social and political consequences. And thirdly there is the issue of ambiguity where positive and negative consequences can coexist in many situation and responses.
To our collective dismay, best practice hardly applies in such situations' decision-making becomes a 'seat-of-the-pants' affair. Consequently, as we have suggested elsewhere, leadership and decision-making now shifts from being a 'science' to also being an 'art'. It's about sensing, intuiting, orchestrating and relating generatively.
Take ambiguity. There seem to be two core polarities in this pandemic: ‘saving lives’ versus ‘saving the economy’. Clearly it cannot be an either/or situation. For any organisation, be that a business, or the state, that means protecting employees and citizens on the one hand, versus keeping productive on the other.
Then how does leadership even begin to respond? This is not about 'what to do' (the content), but rather how to think about what to do (the process). So, for example, leadership in complex decision-making might seek to find a wise balance between 3 tensions:
Example of managing this will be further unpacked below. It is sufficient at this stage to recognise that managing complexity requires a balance between taking the necessary time for close observation of trends, and also being prepared to take definitive and concerted action - they go in tandem. Policy-makers, especially politicians, struggle to think this way - their constituencies demand immediate and straight-forward answers. Scientists and academics however might tend to find security in their 'ivory-tower' disciplines. Yet in times of crisis leadership simply needs to act courageously.
Currently we face such an unprecedented and complex challenge, demanding complex adaptive responses. Yes, we have faced epidemics before, but never in such an interconnected, interactive, and interdependent world. So there are no easy or immediate solutions to the multiple unforeseen consequences needing simultaneously to be addressed. These might be physical; maintaining public health and accessing and distributing the supplies needed. They might also be economic; maintaining as many businesses and livelihoods as possible. They will also be socio-political; simply maintaining public order.
And maintaining that order is not going to be easy. So of importance in this 'post truth' era where populations in democracies require convincing, is providing ready access the best information possible. Playing politics in such times of crisis, whilst also historically typical (the blame game) is tragically unhelpful, as too is the counter-productive impact of uninformed social media content.
ET Complex Adaptive Intelligence process
Yet people do tend to feel more more comfortable when they feel in charge of at least some responses; when there is some available practical plan of action. That is why we are endeavouring to offer a clear approach, one that is both implementable by policymakers, but also by reasonably informed laypeople. (See below!)
As mentioned above the VUCA acronym of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity helps us to think about how to address such situations. One such example is the controversial debate around the merits, on the one side, of the ‘containment’ of the spread of the virus; as enabled by hygiene and social distancing, etc. On the other side are the merits of 'managed contagion'; allowing the development of ‘herd immunity’. This is a clear example of ambiguity.
In these situations the business of communicating appropriate strategies itself becomes highly complex. To an uninformed public, certain applied measures can easily look like jumping from the frying pan into the fire - creating more challenging problems by trying to avoid or contain the original problem. Most institutions and organisations seem to be unequipped to do this. That is why we stress that they urgently acquire the necessary practical skills and competencies - and why we have kept our process as user-friendly as possible.
At this time especially senior healthcare managers are required to make decisions and manage as effectively as possible in their dealing with the complexity of the pandemic. With hospitals becoming overwhelmed by surge of patients there is a dearth of accessible tools or techniques to assist executives with their thinking, decision-making and approaches. Here are a few helpful thoughts:
Snowden’s 'Cynefin' model remains useful:
1. Decision-making in straight-forward situations requires normal best practice protocols - continue do apply that where appropriate.
2. Decision-making in complicated multi-factorial situations (where all or most of the agents can be identified) requires good practice after due analysis. So engage the experts in testing, researching etc. Data analysis is now exponentially improved by AI computation - continue to use that.
3. Decision-making in complex multidimensional situations (where many possible unidentified agents need to be included) requires:
4. Decision-making in complex to chaotic emergency situations requires
a. Immediate intuitive action-response
b. High capacity to adapt to emergence - new developments
5. As already emphasised in a crisis decision-makers do often appear to be caught in a cleft stick; presented with situations in which any action or decision easily precipitates further problems. In this light consider the following:
Managing tensions in leadership and decision-making
As stressed above in complex dynamical situations many decisions can easily give rise to further complexity. A clear example of such an anomaly in the current pandemic is the current debate around containment (social distancing) versus managed contagion (allowing the development of herd immunity)
Balancing risk and caution:
Outcome: Limit the number of infection to prevent system overwhelm - versus social and economic disruption - public resistance/rebellion
Balancing means and ends:
Requesting/communicating hygiene, social distancing - versus demanding, managing and controlling - discipline versus rebellion - policing - in democracies this will be seen as a radical incursion of personal freedom
Balancing action and context:
Capacity issues - emergency reorganisation of health resources, supply chain management - versus protection and resourcing of medical staff, supply chain ‘just-in-time’ measures and panic buying disruption
Balancing risk and caution:
Outcome: Allowing sufficient people to become infected so that they develop immune resistance and hence slow down further contagion - versus overwhelming health services
Balancing means and ends:
Managing size of public gatherings, opening/closing facilities, times - versus unknowns of contagiousness, uncertainty in respect of immune response, vulnerability,
Balancing action and context:
Assessing measures to be adopted allowing some social mixing versus - flattening the peak to avoid health service overwhelm
Applying the ETGroup’s 'Complex Adaptive Intelligence'
In brief: Complex Adaptive Intelligence - a systematic approach for addressing systemic issues:
Leadership and the future?
Here are a few general observation - scenarios: