The danger of chaotic decision making in a time that demands something more

Managing in the age of Coronavirus demands greater data transparency; the future of our children depends on it. Part 3 in a series.

One of the things I learned studying chaos theory years ago was that if you drop a leaf two feet from the ground it is impossible to accurately predict where it will land. There are too many variables. 

What one can do is focus on the variables and denominators that do make a difference. If a breeze is blowing west… well… Likewise, if the leaf is wet, it will drop faster than when dry. This way of thinking can inform your direction. 

The Coronavirus pandemic is now evolving at a pace where all possible variables are in play, making it difficult to predict. But what I see happening is that, despite authorities’ best efforts, they are not necessarily taking into consideration all of the best possible variables and denominators to ensure the best possible outcome for all. And this has me concerned. 

COVID-19 does not mandate the world to be in chaos

Over the past week I’ve shared my thoughts on COVID-19 in a series of posts focused first on the challenges of managing a global organization through a global pandemic, but in a world of regional and often provincial governmental authority responses. And then later on the problems that can occur when those authorities react too quickly to what might be incomplete data, vs. on making more informed decisions, and on making the right data – what may previously have been “shadow data” – available, and to avoid reactionary, chaotic choices. 

Since that time, we’ve seen a series of decisions being made in all corners of the world designed to stem the spread of the outbreak. While they were made based on good intentions, many seem to have been made with the same parochial approach, using data that is not necessarily complete. The result of which, I fear, will create economic repercussions that we will live with for decades to come. Repercussions that could be avoided if everyone, everywhere made better decisions based on better and more transparent access to the best possible information. 

I hope I’m wrong, but I think we in Europe and the US right now are making decisions based on missing data. 

Looking to South Korea for more transparent answers 

The major problem I see is that by locking down the citizens of the world without understanding who has the virus now, we risk creating what is an otherwise avoidable economic collapse. 

In South Korea, unlike China, Europe and the United States, authorities did not set an indiscriminate curb on the internal movement of their people. Instead, tests were made available to hundreds of thousands of people everywhere from clinics to drive-through testing centers. At the same time, authorities enabled transparency into all available information so that those who were infected or otherwise vulnerable, including the elderly, could be better protected. While those who were not, could pursue their lives with some semblance of normalcy. And more limited damage to everyone’s economic prosperity. 

Here in Denmark, and in a number of other parts of the world, it seems we have now chosen another path; one informed by far less transparency. 

As a citizen – of Denmark, Europe and the world – and as a father, this has me gravely concerned. I believe we have chosen a path that one might consider to be reactionary at best, in an attempt to do something that can help protect everyone. But in doing so, pursuing a path that is not fully-informed, we are setting ourselves up for a potentially even greater overall catastrophe.  

Our children deserve more than chaotic decision making 

As often happens with a crisis that begins and evolves at a distance, no one wanted to approach this evolving virus in advance. The resulting inaction, and lack of coordination and regional reactions by leaders around the world, left only one point of equilibrium: financial inaction until the risk became tremendously exaggerated.  

As a business leader, time is one of the most important variables in any scenario that we can and do plan for. This is why we make multiple plans with multiple time frames, to address a wide number of possible outcomes and variables. 

When you don’t plan adequately, as can happen in government, where any suggestion of incremental spending to address what can seem like a far-fetched, “what-if” scenario, the only choice left can be to throw money at the problem. This seems to be happening now as governments worldwide pump money into the system. And it seems the chaotic spend will go on until the virus threat is over. 

The longer it goes, the greater the risk of economic meltdown. The domino effect will kick in from there. The result will be more initiatives needed to mitigate the social consequences of an expected rapidly rising unemployment rate that will affect all income groups as we see a wave of bankruptcies and other long-lasting societal problems.  

That’s why I don’t share the optimism of those who believe that chaotic decisions, like shutting down life as all know it, and the tidal wave of challenges that will come with it, hold the answer to our future. For the sake of an entire generation of Danes, and people all over the world, I hope I’m wrong. If only the data was available, we might be able to prove it, or even reverse course before it is too late. 

Data shows a treatments/cures may not be too far off 

Scientific and pharmaceutical company leaders around the world are moving quickly to find potential therapies and/or a cure. While public reports indicate a vaccine could be six months to a year out, potentially faster interim solutions may be available sooner. The data is still new but appears hopeful; it might just require a bit more time. Scientists in China, Korea and the United States are experimenting with existing drugs.  

Preliminary data on these tests is starting to be made available. The results could provide tremendous hope. While it may not seem like we have the luxury of time, the ramifications of decisions being made that are also informed by incomplete data – without having done widespread rapid testing – could make the wait more justified.  

It is not too late for increased transparency

I do realize that this is a time where strong controls are mandated. There is data from numerous sources – most recently from Italy – that shows the devastating potential results of inaction.  

But, as both a business leader, and as a father, I ask, at what cost?  

Nobody in government ever wants to preside over these sorts of decisions. Regardless of what direction an elected official takes, in this day and age, they will be considered by one party or another to have done the wrong thing.

It doesn’t need to be that way.  

We live in a world where data is being used in more astounding and beneficial ways every single day. While people often point out the negative aspects of living in a data-driven world – loss of privacy, cybercrime, etc. – the upside is tremendous. We as a global business and social community, we have the potential to use data for good, to benefit everyone. Or to identify sources of new data and use it to solve the world’s biggest problems.  

COVID-19 is that kind of problem. With more data, and data transparency, we can take it on without the potential backdrop of economic collapse. While I do not mean to sound insensitive or crass, doing what might be seen as shutting down the economy in order to potentially save what could be a small percent of our most vulnerable, while crushing the hope, dreams and prosperity of an entire younger generation, does not seem like the only possible answer.  

I hope I am wrong about that. In the meantime, I suggest we continue to learn from the data and act accordingly.

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