“It’s just basically a failure to adapt to the battlefield as the battlefield changes that has left us really flat-footed.”
– David Fisman, Professor of Epidemiology, University of Toronto.
During this protracted period of COVID-19, it goes without saying that we are living in interesting and uncertain times. Not only more so than ever before, but together as humanity. While humanity has collectively faced the same contagion, the responses have differed by ideology. Have our responses left us flat-footed or fleet-footed?
For most of us, our professional and social lives have melded. For those who have resisted bringing your whole self to work, you no longer have a choice. Video conferencing reveals all. For those who took pride in being proactive and deliberate in everything you did, you’ve now resigned yourself to “Let’s see what happens.”
The perfect, complex and cataclysmic storm for
“Responding to change over following a plan” (Agile Manifesto Value #4)
Agile ways of working advocate for a sense-and-respond approach over a predict-and-plan approach towards change. The latter is built for stable and knowable environments. The former is built for dynamic and unknowable environments.
Predict-and-plan is safe but conventional. It appeals to our sense of control and complacency. A “set-and-forget” predisposition for and dependency on historical best practices. Staying within the bounds of our current tried and true world.
Sense-and-respond is riskier but more innovative as well. Outside our comfort zone. An endless set of Plan-Do-Check-Adjust (PDCA) experiments utilizing all of our physical senses to learn and adapt to ever-changing circumstances. Forced out of bounds and no longer ‘in control’ of an unrecognizable world.
However, it doesn’t mean predict-and-plan approaches are always clear and straightforward. Even predict-and-plan can benefit from a little sense-and-respond. Take the game of chess for instance. A 2-player game played on a checkered board with 64 squares and 16 pieces per player. Sounds like a standard predict-and-plan environment. Yet, there are 318,979,564,000 possible ways to play the first 4 moves. For the first 10 moves, there are over 169 octillion ways. That’s 169 followed by 27 zeroes!
And that’s with the rules in play.
Creating a plan for those predictions would break Microsoft Project. Forget the plan and look for the ‘tell’ on the face of your opponent on the other side of the chessboard.
COVID-19 has no rules of engagement. It’s been completely indiscriminate on its wanton path of misery and destruction. It’s inconceivable to think that we can predict COVID-19’s next move.
There has been nothing predictable about COVID-19.
Just when we think we have it figured out; it throws us a curve ball. Not just one, but a flurry of curve balls on the same pitch. You close your eyes and take a swing. You make contact. As you admire how you managed to connect with one, the rest whistle by.
Our responses to the pandemic have largely been empirical – chock full of trial and error.
For some of us, it has been kind of like shuffling along in the dark with our arms stretched out in front of us. Pivoting only when we bump into a wall or a piece of furniture.
For others, our responses feel like we’ve brought a knife to a gun fight.
For the rest of us, it has been a wake-up call to action and opportunity; to think outside the proverbial box.
Which of those responses feel flat-footed? Which feel fleet-footed?
In all cases, it has brought out the worst and the best in us.
Here’s a sample of recent pandemic responses I’ve noticed.
- Hoarding and its cousin,
- Price gouging
- Social distancing and isolation
- COVID-19 miracle cures
- COVID-19 infection testing
- Developing a COVID-19 vaccine
- Virtual community sing-alongs
- At Home editions of late-night talk shows
- Virtual music concerts
- 3M increases production of N95 masks
- A local vodka and gin distillery (Spirit of York) retrofitting their equipment to produce hand sanitizer
- A clothing manufacturer (Hanes) retrofitting their equipment and retraining their staff to produce medical-grade masks
- Launch of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB)
- Credit relief initiatives from financial institutions
- A hockey equipment manufacturer (Bauer) shifting its focus from hockey to produce masks and face shields for medical professionals
- On-lining classroom training
- Coordinated isolated sports training and events
- Contactless pizza
- Comic relief political spoofs including my favourite – “Speaking Moistly”
What if we were to assess, then plot each of these sample responses against innovation and risk? Here’s my arbitrary view on what that could look like.
I’ve gained a few insights from this exercise I’d like to share.
- Sense-and-respond responses challenge underlying values, beliefs and assumptions
- Predict-and-plan responses eventually lead to sense-and-respond responses.
- Today’s sense-and-respond responses will become tomorrow’s predict-and-plan responses
Here are a few examples to illustrate these insights.
- Challenging underlying values, beliefs and assumptions. Governments are often stereotyped as bureaucratic entities displaying a lack of empathy and fraught with inefficiencies. Canada’s CERB program to aid Canadian workers who have suffered income loss due to COVID-19, changed all that for me. The benefit offers $2000 per month for 4 months. From the time the program was announced on March 25th to the time it was launched for Canadians to apply online on April 6th, a total of just 11 calendar days had passed – less than 2 weeks. The success rate for applicants appears to be very high with most applicants receiving their benefit within a day or two of applying. This speed was only possible because the government chose to adopt a trust now and verify later approach.
- From predict-and-plan to sense-and-respond. A couple of examples stand out for me here.
- 3M in the US is a leading supplier of the N95 respirator and surgical masks. It’s predict-and-plan response to the pandemic was to increase their production of the masks. However, when they decided to publicly defy a presidential order demanding they stop shipments of the much-needed masks outside of the US, they did so on moral and ethical grounds. That was a sense-and-respond response.
- The province of Ontario’s COVID-19 daily testing levels were operating at only 25% of its capacity and well below other provinces. Upon investigation, one of the reasons for the low testing volumes was the outdated assumptions and criteria used to accept test candidates. The criteria focused on 1) travel and 2) contact with a known case of COVID-19. Those criteria may have been sufficient at the beginning of the pandemic, but the “battlefield” had changed significantly since then. The criteria needed to now include other criteria such as community transmission and occupation. The original predict-and-plan assumptions were replaced with a more dynamic set of sense-and-respond assumptions in order to quadruple daily testing levels within a month.
- Today’s sense-and-respond, tomorrow’s predict-and-plan. If the risk of this pandemic continues for what some believe could be years, then the practice of ‘social distancing’ will no longer be a novel concept. It’ll be part of the new predict-and-plan normal. Social distancing and masks may become as commonplace in the workplace as it is in the grocery store or the pharmacy.
These insights have raised bigger questions in my mind.
- When is it appropriate to use predict-and-plan? Sense-and-respond?
- Can we always lead with sense-and-respond? Should we?
- What stressors can we inject into a system to transition predict-and-plan into sense-and-respond?
- How can we sustain the effectiveness of sense-and-respond when it becomes predict-and-plan?
- What will top “Speaking Moistly”?
The world has been humbled by COVID-19. Out of the abyss, there is light. The light of new ideas, a new consciousness and a new normal. Will it last? Only time will tell.
In the meantime, let’s just see what happens.