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The Constant Crisis

Feb. 13, 2022
Crisis management is no longer working. We need to reject the fiction that nature (and billions of individuals) can be defined, classified, and coordinated to achieve some impossible outcome.

If you headed up a business that reached a crisis, like an explosion or a fire that put all operations on hold and disrupted organizational plans for months – which then prompted you to develop new plans that had to be implemented quickly, without the typical evaluation and deliberation among the management team and influential customers  – it’s fairly certain that you would lose your job. You may have made fine decisions and played every move well, or as well as might be expected under impossible circumstances, but you were the one who has become identified with the crisis. The business needs to turn the page and put the crisis behind it.

The next person to take that job has an even bigger problem: He has to make everyone – suppliers, customers, investors, employees – believe he has a foolproof plan that, with the right buy-in from those stakeholders will put the organization in an even better position to succeed and grow. Without the acceptance by all those stakeholders, however, the replacement is going to be replaced too, because no one believes what he’s saying.

This drawn out example is fairly simplistic, and obvious: the Covid-19 pandemic ruined all sort of plans for all types of organizations, often making existing problems (like hiring skilled workers, or optimizing global supply chains) worse than they were already and introducing new complications like imposing workplace safety standards that alter organizational efficiency.

It’s not hard to see these implications in the example, but it’s impossible to see the truth of the situation in this tale. The Covid-19 pandemic is not a management problem. It’s simply a factor we must calculate in making our plans, graver and more consequential than checking the weather forecast – but comparable in the sense that we cannot alter the facts at hand.

Comparing our lives or governments or other social organizations to business has been inclination of politicians, financial analysts, comedians, and similar “influencers”, at least since the 1990s. In fact the only thing that works like a business is a business; when things go wrong, people get fired. In other aspects of life, the resolution and retribution (or reward) take much longer to recognize.

So, the problem sketched out here will not be solved by replacing the first manager nor his replacement; the problem is the stakeholders have fixated on the crisis and are waiting impatiently for someone to make their fixation go away.

The only way for the lingering problems of the Covid-19 crisis to be dispelled is for billions of individuals to determine they will no longer behave as if the crisis can be fixed. It must be factored into our plans – business plans, organizational plans, personal plans. Each one of us will have to calculate individually how to do that, assessing the respective threats to our security and safety. For some people, many people even, that will require more precaution, more adjustment, and for their colleagues and loved ones this will mean more patience and adaptation. That’s good; we need more kindness and courtesy in our social lives.

But forcing other people to share our anxieties about the virus is a strategy for doing nothing and doing so inflames the tensions that linger among us. We cannot overcome all this unless we work at the same time to become better colleagues and friends, better people.

Even so, the temptation to see the pandemic as a large-scale management problem is one that many influential people have embraced and continue to preach. The facts have not yet caught up with them, and in many case never will, because the crisis has become their business plan. Many of them have grown wealthier and more influential by maintaining the fiction that nature (and billions of individuals) can be defined, classified, and coordinated to achieve some impossible outcome. The outcome, it must be realized, is the same for every person who has ever lived.

These crisis managers are playing with humans’ innate anxiety about our mortality. Whether they realize it or not, as the business analyst might say, they are on their way out.