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Houston, we have a problem...

Leadership COVID-19

The WHO (World Health Organization) Member States are calling for an independent investigation into the WHO’s manner of response to the coronavirus in China. I cannot wait to see what this research will tell us. Why was COVID-19 dismissed as a common flu for so long?

Why did the WHO, and, following its lead, many Member States, adopt a wait-and-see attitude in the first months after the outbreak? Will they be looking for the individuals who are responsible, or will they also examine the performance of the organization as a whole? I hope it will be the latter. Because then, we too, might learn something about decision-making and decisiveness in times of crisis.

What does science have to say?

There is such a thing as a “recovery window”–the time period between a potential threat and a disaster, prevented or not. This threat can be either very obvious or rather ambiguous. When the Apollo 13 oxygen tank exploded, for instance, it was immediately clear that to do nothing would surely lead to the death of the astronauts. Remember the legendary words: "Houston, we have a problem". It was all hands on deck. A multi-disciplinary team was put together that worked around the clock to solve the problem.

Blog_Houston we have a problem

Ambiguous threats

If a threat is ambiguous, we often see a rather passive response in organizations. The risk is minimized ("This virus compares with the seasonal flu"), people adopt a wait-and-see attitude (measures such as face masks, tracing and so on were only taken when the exponential growth became visible in their own region) and the search for solutions is fragmented, led by one particular discipline (initially, it was mainly medical experts who looked into the problem).

Thus, the fact that one did not take full advantage of the recovery window in the run-up to the coronavirus crisis, is quite a natural pattern. Plus, it is the result of factors at both an individual and a team and organizational level. As far as the former is concerned, we thus, for example, tend to prefer information that confirms rather than contradicts our ideas. We cannot really blame the WHO executives for allowing themselves to be led by previous virus outbreaks. This is a typical error in thinking (confirmation bias), and we are all limited in our ability to think rationally. What we cán expect from the WHO and its executives is that they establish processes and systems that enable good decision-making despite our limited cognitive capacity. We need to find points of leverage for this at a team and at an organizational level.

Our responsibility

As a manager you can play an important role in encouraging an "open and inquisitive" attitude against the natural "wait-and-see” reflex of organizations, and thus make up in part for our limited cognitive capacity.

  • Thoroughly review ambiguous threats. Explicitly ask the question "What if...?".  In this way your team will investigate to what potential threats the signals may point. And it will make it easier for technical experts to come forward, even if they don't have all the data yet.
  • Set up experiments. Try out new things, stick with what works and change what does not work. This will break through fossilized (thinking) patterns and allow you to respond more quickly.
  • Encourage dissenting opinions. You need to disrupt biases and look into alternative hypotheses. You can achieve this, for example, by admitting your own mistakes, by teaching teams to deal with constructive conflict, by doing away with differences in status and power, and so on.
  • If there is a potential threat, steer the process. Bring together the right expertise in a task force. Give them a clear mandate to analyze the threat and to brainstorm on solutions. Support them by teaching them how to work together as a crisis team and give them access to all necessary resources to achieve their mission. Give them plenty Read of space and try not to monopolize the discussion.

This article appeared (in Dutch) in HRmagazine on May 26, 2020.

Read more?

A. Edmondson, M. Roberto, R. Bohmer, E. Ferlins, and L. Feldman. “The Recovery Window: Organizational Learning Following Ambiguous Threats,” in Farjoun, M. & Starbuck, W. (Eds.), Organizations at the Limit: NASA and the Columbia Shuttle Disaster, London: Blackwell, 2005

Get in touch

Do you want to contact the author? Or do you have a question? Let her know via Karen.Wouters@ams.ac.be .

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