The Unpredictable Crisis

We have somehow endured the fourth week of sheltering at home for the corona virus, and we are beginning to understand the nature of this crisis.  It is also the 10 year anniversary of publication of “Mastering the Unpredictable.”  The corona virus response is unfolding exactly like an unpredictable crisis — both the good and the bad.

Why Unpredictable?

Actually, of all the major crises that can occur, a pandemic is probably the most predictable, but it is still a question of operating at a time when you don’t know what the parameters are going to be.   In January we started hearing the first reports from Wuhan but many things were unclear:

  • The virus might an R0 of 4 and possibly fatality rate of 4% which would be devastating.
  • We didn’t known what the exact symptoms would appear.
  • Nobody had any idea whether the antiviral drugs would work or not.
  • There was no way to know how susceptible the general population was.  In the early days there was a rumor that it only affected Asians.
  • There is clearly a respiration component to the disease, but we had no idea how many ventilators would be needed, if any at all.
  • We had no way to know where it was, who had it, and who had had it.
  • We could not trace the patterns of spread without reliable tests.
  • BUT . . . you have to take action without waiting for these to be clarified.


We saw a mixture of leadership, from very admirably capable at handling unpredictable situation, to woefully inadequate / ignorant.  The strong leadership moved cautiously, but decisively conservative.  The real danger in a pandemic is the exponential nature of the growth:  the number of new people infected is proportional to the number already infected, and when that starts to grow, it can continue to grow all the way.  On family member commented on how surprised they were when the US deaths got to be in the hundreds/day because “just two weeks ago it was less than 10 / day.”  The strong leaders could really have no idea exactly how fast it would grow but you can study the exponential growths in the past and use that understanding, and carefully map it to the clues that exist, and then continue to monitor and adjust as you go along.

The ignorant side of the population resisted and protested saying “I don’t see any problem.”   Indeed, there was no problem at the moment, but the problem was hidden, and the exponential growth was beyond their understanding.  The pastor of the church in Virginia that vowed that church service was more important than remaining safe got the chance to become proof of his conviction when he died less than 2 weeks later from the corona virus.  When it became clear that shelter at home was to have significant effect on the economy, the blood chilling declaration that “a few people are going to have to die to keep the economy going” was heard.  The standard anti-government and anti-science rhetoric was enhanced by a complete lack of understanding of how one has to act in an emergency with partial information.


Once you learn something, it is very hard to remember what it was like before you knew it.

Now that the shelter at home has surely avoided the most dramatic ramp-up scenarios, there is a lot of arm-chair refereeing of the actions that were taken.   “They shouldn’t have done ‘X’ because we should have known ‘Y’.”  What is always forgotten here, is how you had to make the decision before you know the fact.  Once the facts become available, it is completely unfair to criticize the decisions that later seem wrong.  Those decisions didn’t seem wrong at the time, or at least, because of the complete lack of information, did not seem any worse than the other choices.

Some will point to facts that were known at the time, but ignore that there were many other “false facts” that were mixed in, and it was impossible to know which was which.  Before 9/11 US intelligence had received warning about planes flying into buildings, but those tips were mixed in with thousands of others that turned out to be false.  It is too simple to say that the people at that time should have known a fact that was available at the time.  Most facts are known at some level at any time, but to make decisions you need facts that have been verified and widely known to be correct.

What is even worse is if you take steps to avoid a crisis, and it works, then people will conclude that maybe there was no real need.  That imagined crisis was a hoax.  If as a crisis leader you succeed avoiding the crisis, you are accused of manipulating the public.

Next Time Best Practice

It seems a human fallacy that we look back on a situation and figure: if I had the right concrete plan in place, I would have done better.   It is true that if you had done that particular procedure, things probably would have gone better.  But the plan in question was created after the fact based on things you could not have known at the time you needed the plan.  Every crisis is different.  It is impossible to remember what it was like to not know which facts are real, and so to be able to handle any situation that comes up, even with completely different parameters.

In April 2010 we launched the book “Mastering the Unpredictable” in order to start the discussion of “Adaptive Case Management Systems” the kind of IT infrastructure that you need to help handle unpredictable situations.  The first lesson is that a concrete pre-built plan is almost never the solution.   Every crisis is different, and every team is different, and so you must be very flexible.  You know very little at the beginning, so part of what you have to do is to start collecting and analyzing information.  Then, as new information becomes available (after proper vetting) you need to modify and adapt what is going on.

You need to be agile, but that does not mean that there is no reason to prepare.  Firemen practice rescuing people from burning buildings because that is the kind of thing that is likely to be needed, requires learning how to coordinate, and can be exercised in advance.   Teams that handle emergencies will practice certain patterns.  But then, the agility comes in being able to plug those patterns together quickly and effectively.  The patterns form a vocabulary that the leadership uses to communicate how to respond to the latest turn of events.

So Adaptive Case Management has been widely embraced in the market with almost every middleware vendor offering it in one form or another. The idea that concrete plans can be made to address emergencies is slowly losing favor to the idea that you are able to assemble interactions day by day as new information is found and is incorporated into the working plan.   Fast communications, with rich supporting media, allows knowledge to be collected and shared more effectively, and working plans to be distributed and updated more accurately.  In many ways we have achieved a lot, but the Covid19 crisis shows us that we are far from finished.

So, how are we doing?

Santa Clara county — my home — was the first in the nation to take action to send everyone to shelter at home.  I am particularly proud of our local leadership in this crisis.  I remind my friends who feel that the move was government overreach, that the leadership did admirably without the knowledge we have today.  We really don’t know how it would have turned out if they had done nothing, or if they had done anything different.   But for what they knew at the time, they did a good job.

Preparing for a crisis is everyone’s job.  Ignoring a crisis, and failing to prepare, and then failing to act when the indicators are triggered.  Most of all, don’t get persuaded that all that is needed is a good plan to use in the future.  The plan can not be there, because every crisis is different.  But the good news is that every crisis also has some aspects the same as others.  You can prepare for many scenarios.  You can practice and do drills.  But always keep in mind: decisions have to be made with partial information, so don’t be overly critical in retrospective.



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