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Navigation in a Crisis – A Compass, Not a Map

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

This article was written in the first days of the pandemic, somewhere in early March 2020. Its motivation was to find out how much the coronavirus crisis was, as many called it in the beginning, a “black swan,” an event that could not be foreseen.

An event that explains and makes the helplessness and slow response of our leaders, the decision-makers, legitimate. In a short simple search on Google, I found a collection of articles in the Harvard Business Review (HBR), from 2005, that focused on preparing for a crisis such as a pandemic. It included articles about professional epidemiological topics, but what mainly interested me were the articles that focused on crisis management and what we could have and should have known in 2006 and maybe even sooner. Black swan? Not really.

This article has not been published anywhere until now. But now, when we are in a third difficult lockdown after almost a year of painful experiential learning (and not from a collection of articles in HBR about other countries), we understand the unbearable price of the arrogance of, “Everything will be OK.” Let us begin with the essence of crisis management: in order to navigate in new and unfamiliar territory you must find a map or a global positioning system (GPS). You must determine your current location and define your destination by reading the terrain and understanding the area – the different routes that lead to your destination. In such a situation, the points are fixed, but the routes may change in accordance with the driver, the road conditions, the traffic and the weather.

In crisis situations, such as COVID-19, the traditional strategic approach is not valid – a new way of thinking is necessary. The current location is unclear, and the destination is not visible on the horizon. (What is the final picture? New mutations? The efficacy of the vaccine? How long?) The new information, partial, misleading and misled, makes it difficult to read the terrain, and the routes change by the hour or maybe even by the nanosecond.

There is a famous line that says you can’t solve a problem using the same way of thinking that was used to when we created it. And Einstein said that we have to learn to think in a new way. So what is the new way of thinking we need in order to manage a crisis and our behavior in a time of crisis? A new way of thinking about crisis management can be learned by studying an epidemic in the not-so-distant past, in Canada. On April 23, 2003, the World Health Organization issued a warning about a virus called Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) and a firm recommendation to cancel all flights to Toronto, Canada, and other places in the world. Public events in Toronto were canceled immediately, and tourism suffered. In the province of Ontario, SARS cost the tourism industry more than CA$2 billion in income and jobs. Many people stayed at home in quarantine for more than ten days. Public transportation was suspended, organizations reduced their workforces to essential jobs only. Schools in which an infected person was discovered were closed. The system that sustained the most damage in Toronto as a result of the SARS crisis was the public health system. Since it took time to diagnose lung infections as the SARS virus, it was the healthcare workers at the forefront of the struggle who were exposed to the virus without sufficient protection and to the inhuman workloads.

It sounds familiar… Eventually, in spite of the actions taken, it was clear that the ability to track and control infection was insufficient. Even though the number of SARS fatalities in Toronto was only fifty before the virus vanished, the conclusion reached from the conduct during the crisis was unequivocal – the world could not allow itself a “wait and see” approach in preparing for the next crisis. So, if “wait and see” is not an option – the conclusion is clear: we must prepare. Professional preparation for crisis situations focuses, among other things, on creating an elaborate and multidimensional map inasmuch as it is possible to identify and process vulnerabilities, describe possible effects and the actions that would assist in damage control. The map should be taught to the public, and possible scenarios should be practiced for every juncture of, “What happens if…” With this map, we can be more prepared for the next crisis. Canada, like some other countries that had experienced SARS and other epidemics, did improve their readiness system for the threat of an epidemic, in a way that made it significantly easier to operate in the initial and critical period of managing the pandemic. But Canada did something else that was not obvious. Canada created seven guiding super-principles. These principles don’t pretend to be an orderly map of actions to take but are a compass for the decision-makers. Canada understood from its experience that in the peak moments of the crisis, at the onset, what we need is a compass, not a map. In a chaotic reality, as soon as the map is drafted, it is already no longer relevant. Innovative technology companies, that have always been working in a chaotic reality daily, know this well – innovation in business is not based on long term strategic planning but on principles of cooperation, creating assorted ad hoc teams with different perspectives, experience, constant learning, heightened awareness and maximum flexibility. The Canadian compass of principles was meant to guide the leaders working under a lot of pressure, and to warn them about the common failures and biases, in crisis management and decision-making, when there is uncertainty. Failures and biases such as:

  • Competition/internal politics

  • Impulsiveness

  • Decisions based on ulterior motives, political interests, powerful emotions, and not on reliable

  • information or professional knowledge

  • Losing a sense of proportion

  • Inflexibility

  • Groupthink (including a lack of diversity in the teams managing the crisis)

  • Canceling existing systems (such as the readiness system for crisis and emergency situations) in favor of the newest bright idea

  • And most problematic of all, decisions made, under pressure or in an emergency situation, in a way that enables the violation of ethical rules and personal and civil rights.

The purpose of a compass is not just to give decision-makers direction in moments of pressure or uncertainty but also to provide an indication of success in the management of the crisis. What is success in the management of the crisis? How does it look? Should it be measured only by mortality rates and the flattening of the curve? Or does success mean upholding the guiding principles? Moral values? Is the manner in which the crisis is managed no less important than its results? I believe it is. What was that compass defined by the Government of Canada for managing the COVID crisis following its experience with SARS? These are its main points:

  • Collaboration – all levels of government and other factors (including social and community organizations) must work together cooperatively in order to produce an effective and coordinated response.

  • Evidence-based decision-making – decisions should be made and communicated on the basis of reliable evidence-based data.

  • Proportionality – the response to a pandemic should be proportional to the level of threat/risk.

  • Flexibility – actions taken should be appropriate for the changing reality, which requires mental flexibility and creativity in light of new and changing information.

  • Policies of caution, not impulse, in accordance with the levels of threat, balanced by as much information as possible

  • Use of established systems and practiced mechanisms in order to manage the crisis rapidly.

Ethical decision-making – decisions should be guided by ethics and social values.

I would add two more principles to the Canadian principles, which I will explain below, but first, it is important to differentiate between a short-term crisis and a long-term crisis. In a short-term crisis, the patience and tolerance of people (workers, citizens) for aggressive, bureaucratic, centralist leadership is relatively high as long as the leaders are somehow perceived as working for everybody’s benefit. In a long-term crisis, however, such as a war or an epidemic, which are indefinite, people’s patience and tolerance disappear. Centralist or bureaucratic leadership will not be able to motivate cooperation for long. In a long-term crisis, people want leadership that is courageous and transparent, that will help them understand the crisis/threat, by means of reliable information, and also give them hope – inspiration that we can overcome this by working together. This kind of leadership is based on trust in leaders who are working fearlessly, at every point in time, on protecting the entire public, with sincere concern and a comprehensive view of the needs of the public – medical, financial, social, defense and others.

In view of this, the two additional principles are:

  • Communication – leadership in a time of crisis requires communication that is continuous, authentic, optimistic and fact-based. This kind of communication will give the public a sense of control by being provided with reliable information. Transparent and truthful communicating to the general public, without sugar coating, as if it were a one-on-one conversation.

  • Personal example – in crisis situations, and in an era when we are all exposed to criticism, and our leadership even more so, leaders must be even more stringent in their demands from themselves than in their demands from the public. This is a personal example of “after me”, the old kind – like commanders who charge first under fire and eat last. Pay cuts taken by certain leaders in Israel and elsewhere are an example of this attitude and of mobilization for recovery from the economic crisis.

This compass does not guarantee a COVID-free environment (when these lines were written, active cases in Canada numbered 84,000 men and women), but it can significantly reduce risk since the circumstantial crisis, the pandemic, could turn into a profound and long term crisis of trust in the decision-makers and in the system itself.

Anyone who has experienced a crisis (personal, familial, organizational…) knows well the foggy feeling (sometimes even blindness, like a boat sailing in fog) and the powerful emotions that come with it. In these moments, when there is no clear destination or detailed map prepared in advance for managing the crisis, may this compass remind us, even partially, how important it is to create a team and not go through the crisis alone, to include different and diverse voices in the team, to cooperate, to listen to experts and to systems that already exists, to make decisions based on existing information and not on unfounded assumptions, to let ethical principles and basic values be a lighthouse, to behave with maximum flexibility, not impulsively and, above all, to remember to validate decisions, to communicate the difficulty with transparency and sensivity, and to walk your talk in a way that enables others to go your way.

It is still not too late.

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