As the COVID19 crisis moves towards its second year, it seems reasonable to suppose that we now know what a steep learning curve really looks like. Many problems have occurred and mistakes have been made amid the pandemic – some more costly than others, some more understandable than others – and it’s interesting to reflect on what we may have gained from the experience.
For example, as someone forced to teach online, I’ve learnt that not everything has to look like a TED Talk. It turns out that most people can be remarkably tolerant of a few glitches here and there, as long as you deliver the goods.
Of course, the stakes tend to be rather higher for those in charge of more than their own performance. Crucial decisions – and the errors that might accompany them – come with the territory for those with whom the buck stops.
So maybe now would be a good time to consider a bit of theory about the ways of exercising authority when confronted by substantive challenges. This ought to tell us something about the links between different problems and different responses – and about how we should deal with our mistakes.
We might begin with an adage ascribed to an American president: “I have two kinds of problems – the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” This snippet of wisdom has long since found its way into one of those 2×2 grids so beloved of business schools and management consultants, the Eisenhower Matrix.
Alas, it’s fair to say that this method of defining problems hasn’t performed very well recently. Everyday experience has been more in keeping with satirist Dorothy Parker’s exasperated mantra: “What fresh hell can this be?” Pretty much everything has appeared urgent and important.
Categories of problems
Thankfully, other models are available. For instance, we can break down problems into the following categories:
are those requiring decision-making that’s both urgent and important. As just stated, this category has seemed disturbingly prevalent of late.
are those where we know what needs to be done and more or less know how to do it. It’s tempting to believe that these have been thin on the ground, but we’ll see about that shortly.
are those with multiple interacting elements that we don’t necessarily understand and multiple possible courses of action with hard-to-predict outcomes. In these cases, we’re well into the “unknown unknowns” that occupy the bottom right of another famous 2×2, the Rumsfeld Matrix.
Now let’s consider the response that each usually demands:
- Critical problems call for command. Someone has to take responsibility and act because doing nothing isn’t an option.
- Tame problems require management. Most business people are good at managing things because it’s what they do every day. Often the task can be delegated to trusted colleagues. Throwing resources at the issue usually does the trick here.
- Wicked problems need what’s increasingly known as authentic leadership. The essence of this approach is to admit that we don’t know everything. But we might know someone whose input we would welcome. Authentic leadership needs to be developed, nurtured and modelled within an organisation over time.
We’ve seen during the COVID19 crisis that these distinctions aren’t always clear-cut. As remarked earlier, pretty much every pandemic-related problem might in some way qualify as critical. This is because both urgency and importance have been the order of the day. Which means, in turn, pretty much every pandemic-related problem has in some way called for a command response.
But a problem doesn’t have to be purely critical. It might be critical and tame or critical and wicked. Or even all three. By way of illustration, let’s see how theory relates to practice by quickly surveying a few high-profile problems and responses arising from the pandemic:
Here the problem was that all the available evidence pointed to an urgent lack of bed space. The response: get the army to build emergency hospitals. The desired outcome was well defined, the organisation carrying out the task was suitably experienced. Money was basically no object. In the final reckoning, while a lot of hard graft was undoubtedly involved, this was a tame problem that required management.
Test and Trace
This, too, may seem like a tame problem, but it becomes wicked once local capacity has been overwhelmed. Building national capability from scratch rather than scaling up local provision has proven to be a poor response because dividing the issue into “easy” demands hasn’t helped. Test and Trace is a system of interrelated and interdependent parts, which means that there’s potential for unintended consequences.
This is widely accepted to be a wicked problem with a variety of correct answers. Ultimately, goals and capabilities have been clearly matched: 90-95% effectiveness is a solid result, and 70% effectiveness is still worth pursuing. The rollout stage, meanwhile, is tamer in nature – a problem that’s the stuff of management.
In his 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman observed that we’re very rarely short of answers for long. But that we routinely produce answers to questions that we don’t really understand. We tend to arrive at decisions, he said, by relying on evidence that we “can neither explain nor defend”.
We do this, Kahneman suggested because we would rather answer an easier question than admit that we don’t fully grasp a tough one. This underlines one of the most significant objectives that any individual or organisation should aim for in the face of crisis: providing the right answer to the right question.
Naturally, it’s extremely unlikely that this was always achieved during the unprecedented tumult of 2020. But that’s why hindsight is not only a wonderful thing but also the best way to learn. Because in the end, the only genuinely unforgivable mistake is the one that’s made twice.
Paul Kirkham is a researcher in the field of entrepreneurial creativity and Ingenuity Learning Support Development Officer at Nottingham University Business School’s Haydn Green Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (HGIIE).
Nottingham University Business School specialises in developing leadership potential, encouraging innovation and enterprise, and developing a global outlook in its students, partners, and faculty. It is recognised as one of the world’s top business schools for integrating responsible and sustainable business issues into its undergraduate, MBA, MSc, PhD, and executive programmes and has unrivalled global reach through Nottingham’s campuses in the UK, China, and Malaysia. The School holds a Small Business Charter Award in recognition of its important role in supporting small and medium enterprises. It is accredited by both the Association of MBAs (AMBA) and the European Quality Improvement System (EQUIS) and ranks among the UK’s top ten for research power.