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After COVID-19: Blame Game or Learning Opportunity?

Karl Wiegers
Mar 21 · 5 min read

No one knows exactly how bad the COVID-19 pandemic will be, how long it will last, or its ultimate human and economic costs. There are two certain outcomes, however:

  1. Humanity, our nations, and our institutions will survive.
  2. This is not our last pandemic.

This global experience has already been rife with recriminations for inadequate preparedness and responses. That’s understandable and appropriate, but simply looking to place blame is not terribly helpful on its own.

A critical step is to learn from our collective experiences so we can better handle the next widespread outbreak or similar crisis. The best way to learn is through a retrospective, a systematic, honest, and objective investigation of what actually happened and what it tells us for the future.

The specific issues to explore will vary, but we need to perform retrospectives at multiple levels of an organization or a community:

  • Family (individuals, couples, multigenerational families, extended and distributed families)
  • Institutions (schools, stores, transportation providers, medical facilities, restaurants, financial institutions, churches, social services, nonprofits)
  • City and county (government services, public transportation, law enforcement, emergency services, public health, elections, utilities, infrastructure, transportation)
  • State (government services, elections, public health, emergency response)
  • National (government services, lawmakers, defense and security, international relations, public health, countless others)

Don’t wait until the end of the battle to learn. Hold retrospectives now to reflect on how well you’re handling things so far. Learn fast, learn well. This will help us all to deal better with what’s yet to come.

What’s a Retrospective?

Rather than being a hunt for the guilty, a retrospective is about bringing a community together to build a complete story of the event, so everyone knows what happened beyond their own viewpoint. The retrospective lets you gather wisdom from experience and then decide where to go from here.

An effective retrospective takes a fact-based approach to understand the sequence of events that took place, the decisions that were made, and their positive and negative outcomes. Obviously, a strong emotional component overlays the cold facts of such a dramatic — and traumatic — occurrence. A retrospective might be the first time individuals feel they have permission to acknowledge and talk about their emotions.

The definitive reference for such activities is the book Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews by Norman L. Kerth. A pandemic isn’t exactly a planned project, but the retrospective principles and activities are the same.

To keep the retrospective focused on the retelling of the story and learning from it, keep in mind Kerth’s Prime Directive:

Regardless of what we discover, we must understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job he or she could, given what was known at the time, his or her skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

How to Retrospect

One effective retrospective technique is to build a timeline of key events. The timeline is part of the retelling of the experience. Invite all the participants to contribute pieces to the timeline to build a rich picture of what happened from multiple perspectives. Kerth’s book describes techniques for approaching this and the other steps in a retrospective.

The timeline will help you see where people took smart actions at the right time. It could also reveal where vital actions could — and should — have been taken but were not because of inadequate knowledge, supplies, human resources, communications, or decision-making.

Time is of the essence in epidemics because of the time lags between exposure, appearance of symptoms, progression of the illness, obtaining treatment, and transmission to others. Hesitant responses can make matters far worse. The timeline helps make all this visible.

After retelling the experience story during a retrospective, the group gathers the lessons learned. Lessons can appear as the group seeks to answer these four questions:

  1. What went well? (Record what you discovered along the way that worked.)
  2. What could have gone better? (We must be ready to do something different next time.)
  3. What happened that surprised us? (This might indicate possible risks to try to manage in the future.)
  4. What do we not yet understand? (Those issues require further research.)

While it’s true that bad situations and our errors provide the most powerful learning opportunities, start by listing things you did well. People rarely completely botch every aspect of a crisis or even an ordinary project. Take the time to feel good about what you accomplished together during this stressful period, without exaggeration or boasting.

Government agencies, leaders, and larger organizations should hold formal retrospectives about how they handled COVID-19. These aren’t free. They require planning, participant time, a neutral facilitator, and follow-up. The managers involved should not facilitate. They are participants in the shared experience and have an important piece to add to the collective story.

This is an investment in the organization’s ability to respond quickly and effectively to future crises. Many organizations did exactly this after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina to improve their ability to function during an emergency. We need to do it again.

Families and small organizations don’t need a formal retrospective, but it’s certainly worth sitting around in a group and having an open conversation about how things went and how we can prepare for the next crisis. We never expect them to come but they do, be they weather events, earthquakes and other natural disasters, military conflicts, or health matters.

Everyone needs a plan. Think of your emergency plan like insurance: if you never need to put it into action, that’s good news.

Action or Inaction: Your Choice

It’s one thing to identify things we didn’t do well that might have produced a better outcome. It’s another matter entirely to do something about it. Each retrospective should produce a list of specific action items — some immediate, some near-term, some long-term — that could better prepare the organization for the next pandemic. By working through this activity as a group, the priorities become apparent at all levels of the community and embraced by its members.

You can’t work on everything at once, so prioritize your action items. Watch out for the trap of spending time on activities that might appear urgent but won’t contribute much to your desired outcomes. But do something! An action plan that doesn’t turn into action is useless.

No amount of planning, no number of lessons learned from past crises can ensure that everyone will know exactly how to handle the next one. Unanticipated, low probability events don’t lend themselves to existing road maps. But we’ve learned a lot — and doubtless will continue to learn more — about how to respond to COVID-19.

I hope people and organizations of all sorts will take the time to think through those experiences honestly, write down what they’ve learned, and take actions to be a bit better prepared for whatever the universe throws at us next time. The cost of recording wisdom is small compared to the cost of acquiring that wisdom. And freely share your learnings with others. We’re all in the same boat.

The alternative to performing retrospectives is little or no learning, or — worse — false learning. When it comes to a pandemic, that lack of learning could be a literal death sentence.

Karl Wiegers

Written by

I’ve written on software development and management, consulting, self-help, chemistry, military history, and a mystery novel. More info at karlwiegers.com.

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