Of Chaos and Action

Jose D'Alessandro
Jul 29 · 9 min read

A defiant look at the pandemic and its solutions

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Frozen River, by Katie Doherty on Unsplash

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been attending a webinar or two a day since the start of the lockdown.
I even spoke in a few. And what I witnessed, and tried no to contribute to, has been an incredible array of attempts to predict what will happen “after”. Especially from economists (but I’ve seen a McKinsey’s matrix of 12 different scenarios)

Yes, their statements are mitigated by many “probably” and “possibly”, but what would you expect after the embarrassing predictive performance the entire class made during the previous crises? They would better listen to J.M. Keynes’s famous sentence*: It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.

Although, as I hope I will be able to prove by the end of this article, this tangle of ideas might prove anyway useful, if not for the time and the stimuli to think and learn it gave to large swaths of the productive population, I think that most of the effort of the experts has been largely misplaced, starting from a generally poor analysis of the problem itself.

It dawned on me clearly when reading a HBR article from Professors Pisano, Sadun e Zanini on the “Lessons from Italy’s Response to Coronavirus”.
As a former manager and currently an entrepreneur I could not help noticing that, in practice, some of the indications were contradicting each other, e.g. when they suggest to “resist the temptation to act” after they just said that “the most effective time to take strong action is extremely early”, and many others despite the fact that they are useful recommendations if taken individually. And the professors are not alone, actually they are in quite good company.

Beware, I don’t completely buy into the idea that once you know the causes of something you have solved the problem, but it certainly helps, especially because misconceptions might make things worse. And my impression is that somehow we are mixing two crises that are completely intertwined with each other, but different in nature: the health crisis and the economic one.

The first is more of a zemblanity case than anything else, with a few injections of nationalism and international power games. It is at least 20 years that we know how to react to a global pandemic, we have mathematical models, knowledge, plans that require creation of stock of masks, etc…
I think by now almost everybody has seen the 2014 Bill Gates’s TED speech, a lot fewer the US government’s (the first, under Bush’s administration), EU’s and WHO’s documents mentioning the risk and suggesting actions. Only to be almost systematically ignored by the same governments that produced them or that support the organization (or are stopping supporting it, for that matter).

Actually, if it calls for anything, it is for more globalization, not less. Had the WHO had the power to really impose its protocols, free of any political opportunity consideration at national level, we would not be here today.

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Nasa, on Unsplash

The second is a “classic” black swan, if such a thing exists.
A butterfly’s or, better, a bat’s wings flap, and the world economy nearly collapses in an unprecedented way, not just magnitude. The perfect outcome of a globalization based on ill-conceived principles.

Now, while the health one would have required swift action, listening to the experts, avoiding partial solutions, and any other righteous advice, the second, having brought us to uncharted territories, would demand resisting the temptation, exploring, probing, learning…

Hence the conflicting solutions proposed.
Hence the dangerous combination of the two that in a gigantic domino effect has brought the world to the edge of chaos as rarely before.

Chaos is a state where old rules don’t apply any longer and new one have not yet emerged.
It doesn’t last indefinitely, and sometimes the new order is not “better” than the previous one, but the challenge is to manage uncertainty throughout (in Latin certainty comes from “cernere”, separate, the ability to tell one thing from the other).
And it’s a collective one, more unbearable because there is nobody to look up to for inspiration, instruction or imitation.

There is an old “fake news”, one that JFK fell for, that the Chinese “word” for crisis is made by 2 ideograms, one meaning danger, and the other opportunity. It’s not accurate, but beautiful and true.
Indeed, exactly because there are no longer “rules”, chaos can also be very generative, but under 2 conditions: courage and agency. Especially for the legacy companies, those in “old” industries, the SMEs, because some newco, and some giant will survive and thrive life since life doesn’t accept empty spaces.

Because if we succumb to fear, we get crushed
A beautiful Sufi story tells that a wise man on his pilgrimage meets Death and she tells him she is going to kill 10.000 people in a distant town. A year later, the two meet again and the man complains that she lied because in reality, 100.000 people died. The answer is that Death only killed 10.000, the others fear did.

It is true: when scared, we look down, panic, react instinctively, stop thinking (rationally) and look for whatever help we may find.
And the temptation is, in politics but not only, to resort to strongmen (normally the masses) or to the experts (normally the elites).
Both are wrong answers. The first should require no explanation. For the second, we could say, misquoting Yaneer Bar-Yam, that when the connectivity increases exponentially, past experience is no longer of use.

And what are experts if not the masters of the old experience? What can they teach us when it is exactly the old paradigm that brought us here?
And what is this world if not a net of millions of interconnected nodes, that we have forced to operate on a few principles, efficiency and financialization, making it incredibly fragile. Because the lack of alternatives makes the system collapse, if even a single link in a streamlined “food chain” disappears.

Peter Drucker said once that a company is a branch of society, we have made the society a branch of the economy. These principles have become so pervasive that we don’t speak any longer of market economy, but of market society, which means that anything comes with a price tag. Even feelings, as Branko Milanovic brilliantly argues in his last book “Capitalism, alone”.

We might just want to add that the system was already broken. We were getting many signals, and we didn’t take note. Actually we were trying to pretend that we could hold on to the reductionist logic that has served us so conveniently for the last 300 years, sweeping under the carpet of the “externalities” everything we could not explain or dominate.
Convinced that we just needed more power, more science, more technology, more data, we deluded ourselves, dismissing any other approach as ineffective, theoretical, and just paying lip-service to multidiscipinarity with the the not-so-secret intention of bending it to the needs of business or of the control over the world in general.
While in reality most of the problems we face at societal level are wicked ones and don’t allow for algorithmic, linear, cause-effect logic, but for trial and error, feedback loops, interdependence.
And the battle has not yet started, if Hetan Shah from the British Academy decided to write this article on Nature to stress the need of a complex approach to the situation.

Done with the analysis. What about the future, then? The aftermath of covid?

I said courage will help, but what kind of courage?
A different kind of courage to start with. Of not jumping to conclusions too early, of challenging our deeper beliefs, of delving into doubt without rushing to simple solutions, more than often wrong.
And more importantly, the courage of acting, experimenting, while knowing that most of the time we will be wrong.

So let’s start by challenging within ourselves the old paradigm: profit, growth, hierarchy, KPIs, averages.
Which are our holy cows? Our economic taboos? This is the perfect moment to shed them. Can we rethink, reimagine, recreate the way we do business? Can we give it a deeper sense? We missed this opportunity in 2008, but back then we had the culprits, the finance guys (and they too missed the opportunity big time)…

I know, when you are worried about the very survival of your company, how can you waste time on theoretical issues. But as Albert Einstein told us, there are few things as practical as a good theory and don’t forget that many great companies were born during crises (GE, HP, IBM, Disney…)
Start reading about complexity, agile, alternative models, some smart people out there have done already the work, we just need to use it, to follow them. Write a list of your DON’Ts and challenge them one by one. We haven’t had so much time to think for years, pushed to groupthink even when it was about creativity. Let’s not waste it.

Then do the same with the practical obstacles and dangers and ask yourself whether they can be transformed into opportunities.
Wait a moment, isn’t this a key element of the old narrative? Maybe, but the obstacles and the dangers today are different, to be overcome they demand a re-hauling of the organization, true innovation.
And indeed a large part of great innovations came from problems turned upside-down: waste into products, errors into resources. It’s called serendipity, part luck, part sagacity, but to make it happen you need the time and the coolness to detach yourself from the current problem and be ready for the unexpected. If it still sounds too fluffy, think of micro-irrigation, post-it, velcro, penicillin, viagra, x-rays…

More than engaging in forecasts — trying to guess what will change and how — better focus on what will not change, and what has finally come to stay.
It’s since I started working at IBM more than 30 years ago, that I heard that soon we would start teleworking. That time has eventually come! and I doubt that we will go back to normal: some of the companies I’m consulting with, are clear about this, the relation with the office has changed forever.
The deterioration of the environment (should call it covid2?) is another thing that will not change.
Draw the natural implications of those: workspace, organization, home structure/layout
Again, write a list, check it out.

When I started working, we used to do 10-year plans, spending months in the effort. Ridiculous as it may sound today, the reality is that we haven’t really changed the approach, just the timespan, obsessed with details that prove constantly wrong. Understanding the logic of complex systems means that you set a flexible, ambitious goal and then you start experimenting, first with people, then with things and you move towards the goal adjusting all the time.
The first thing it’s more or less what we are doing these days with all the webinars, calls, report/book sharing: exchanging information and ideas for free. But we need to go beyond the “borders” of business. We need to speak to philosophers, architects, artists, chefs, old people, youngsters, minorities. The larger the spectrum, the better.
The second requires as many as possible initiatives, tests, trials, prototypes… and the ability to forgive and learn the necessary mistakes. Remember that it will be “the better” proposal that will succeed, we build the world as much as it builds us.

Lastly, but this possibly the most important piece of advice of them all.
Do it together. The things that are working during this crisis are those made through the collaboration of individual initiatives in a common effort. In the hospitals, in the companies working to find tools, vaccines, in those working to stay alive, most of the ideas that are working, come bottom-up. From the people on the frontline, those fighting the enemy, being it the virus or the coming recession.

So, take all the above points and open a discussion with your employees, with your peers, with your competitors, with your community.
Ask questions, join efforts, ask for help, and offer it, multiply the power, use all available resources, launch initiatives.

Sure, not everybody will buy it, some will be tempted to profit, to manipulate and pursue hidden agendas.
That’s their problem, if we fail, we will find ourselves weaker, meaner, poorer on the same road to the next deluge.

* it seems that was a Danish politician to create the sentence largely attributed to Keynes.

Wyde PlayGround

Talks from the Next Generation of GroundBreakers

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