The war is over. The war has just begun. Long live the creator
“The basic principle should be to allow activities that have a large benefit to the economy or human welfare but pose a small risk of infection.” — Bill Gates, April 2020
“I have urged our fellow Americans to go about their lives, to fly on airplanes, to travel, to go to work” —US President G.W. Bush — post 9/11
“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap but by the seeds that you plant.” ― Robert Louis Stevenson
The slow unwinding
If expectations a month ago were that lockdowns would cease and life would rapidly return to normal, the consensus has shifted to a more gradual and phased returning to normal. Perhaps the lockdowns in the “war” against Coronavirus will end in a way that the Iraq war “ended” with the famous US President Bush pronouncement on the deck of the aircraft carrier — a phase of the war was over, but there was a long road ahead and a different phase of the war (insurgents, IEDs, mortar attacks etc) .
What we have heard recently:
- Don’t expect to be attending large events during 2020, or possibly even much of 2021 (concerts, sporting events, political rallies)
- There are more marginally-sized gatherings (funerals, weddings, religious gatherings, smaller sporting events, movie theatres, pubs) where access may be granted again but with less than a normalised level of attendance and ongoing social distancing and (probably) face masks or coverings.
- Shops, restaurants, museums etc will likely reopen in coming weeks — but with ongoing social distancing
- Schools are seen as a key challenge — the consensus seems to be that operating schools at 100% capacity is impossible. In the UK teachers and unions are reluctant to shorten summer holidays (even if accelerating the start into June) to compensate. A second spike in the winter is seen as possible and to be prepared for. Will the inconsistency of when children can attend school be as limiting to productivity as homeschooling was? It seems reasonable to assume that schools will return following the summer holidays, that attendance will be staggered and that social distancing will be required. How on earth children who are 5 years old can be expected to follow social distancing in the playground is beyond me. Universities will return but will they be financially sustainable without large numbers of Chinese students this year?
- Tourism is likely to take several years (2–3) to return to normal levels. Stay-cations will rise in popularity but global travel will remain at low levels for some time.
- Consumer spending will return but will remain at lower levels for some time, despite calls to increase what you spend (see below)
- Offices will return but with less staff, social distancing and face masks used at least for the commute. Walking or cycling to work will become highly attractive. Living close to your work will become appealing.
- You will be able to see your friends and families again but there will remain an underlying fear of are you going to make me sick that will remain for a while. Some people will opt to not go out and will distance themselves from others out of caution or fear.
As evidence of successful approaches emerges around the world, Governments will adapt policies and open up more of the economy. This is a good primer on where we stand on R0, testing, treatments, vaccines and unwinding the lockdown by Bill Gates and helpfully sets out some of the key questions outstanding for this next phase.
- Is the disease seasonal or weather dependent?
- How many people who never get symptoms have enough of the virus to infect others? What about people who are recovered and have some residual virus — how infectious are they? [Obviously a key one as testing then doesn’t help and there is no concept of herd immunity]
- Why do young people have a lower risk of becoming seriously ill when they get infected?
- What symptoms indicate you should get tested?
- Which activities cause the most risk of infection?
- Who is most susceptible to the disease?
The rise of accusing tongues
A UK poll conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies as part of their research into Global Health and Governance Opinion found that 55 per cent of Britons agreed that “the Chinese Government is to blame for the spread of the coronavirus pandemic”
The easiest strategy as a leader in these times is to pass the blame to others. Deflect, not admit culpability. We are about to enter a phase of recriminations and blame-shifting, exacerbated by this being a US election season. This is also the worst possible strategy. The reality is:
- Pandemics have occurred throughout history and will continue to occur
- Pandemics spread faster through global connectivity and movement of people, whether because of business or leaisure
- People did see a pandemic coming (and we had warning through SARs and MERs of what could be in the pipeline at some point
- No Western Government that I have seen written about was in great shape of being prepared for this scale of health, social and economic calamity. Neither were many businesses (perhaps with the exception of Wimbledon Tennis Club with their pandemic insurance policy)
- Mistakes were made in the heat of a crisis. Sometimes political imperatives (promoting a nationalist cause, seeking good polling results, refusing to collaborate with others, hiding the truth from the public) in a particular country meant wrong decisions were made
- Scientific models were produced based on reasonable estimates at the time. As new estimates became apparent, models shifted
- And then we have the truth that hindsight judgement is the worst form of judgement in a crisis like this. The question is not “did they do the right thing” but “did they do the right thing based on the knowledge and experience that they could access at that particular moment of the decision”. If we hadn’t had lockdowns, what would 7 billion infections and 0.1% deaths have meant — 7 million people dead. Would it have been worth it to keep the economy going? I would argue not.
Clearly there were mistakes made and there will be a reckoning for those. But the rise in the blame game, particularly in relation to the coming economic crisis, is a game to not engage in. See it for what it is — an attempt to deflect from genuine questioning of leadership. Accept the context you have and operate with grace, humility, decisiveness and speed.
Will you be a leader that stills your accusing tongue in coming weeks?
Lead with empathy — and this article makes the helpful point that in this time, empathy starts with curiosity.
Your patriotic duty
“In a speech two weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President George W. Bush urged Americans not to be cowed: “Get down to Disney World in Florida,” he declared. “Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” Personal consumption expenditures increased sharply in October 2001, and the recession that had begun in March of that year came to an abrupt end by November.” — New York Times 15th Jan 2012
I wrote a post recently entitled “Creating a Billion Jobs”, focusing on the great workforce displacement and the coming need to create options for the mass-shift in the workforce that is coming. The International Labor Organisation this week said that they see there could be 1.5 billion jobs impacted through job loss or pay cuts as a result of this economic collapse — 38% of the global workforce.
We are about to hear calls that it is our patriotic duty to spend. To “get the economy moving”. To “buy American”, “buy British”, “buy Local” — depending on your context. The answer to the pandemic will be seen as to spend, spend, spend. Banks will be encouraged to lend, payday lenders may get more of a pass, and a rise in consumer credit will be seen as a good thing as long as retail sales keep rising.
The post-manufacturing Western societies are heavily reliant on us spending, and we desperately need to get the economy moving to keep people in jobs, families fed, tax revenues arriving in Government coffers to offset growing debt burdens — but at a deeper level, how we consume, what we consume and when we consume is a reflection on the sort of society we want to become. I would argue that simply buying more stuff, or adding more debt to an over-burdened consumer, is not the answer.
Yes, let’s get back to economic activity. Let’s get back to supporting local businesses, national businesses, global businesses by physically walking through their doors or by ordering through online channels that drive a positive supply chain multiplier. Just don’t kid yourself that it’s your “patriotic duty” to spend and believe that if we spend enough, all will be well again.
Creating not consuming
A better response into this season is to create. I’ve been greatly encouraged by multiple entrepreneurs I have spoken to recently who are rapidly iterating and launching new products or services — largely unrelated to “solving” Covid19.
I have noticed that there is a far greater openness to collaboration than there was a year ago — people are more willing to consider different possibilities.
We can create at a local level by thinking though how we can maintain and deepen the level of connection we have with our neighbours and friends.
We can create in our workplaces and in the organisations we lead through new practices and cultural behaviours. We can launch new products and services to either meet the immediate need or the coming season. There is less revenue in the economy to go around so innovation, lean practices, rapid iteration are key — as so many have said, everyone is a startup now.
I wonder what our lives, our organisations and our society would be like if we each took responsibility to launch one new thing a week. (Yes, close down things also that aren’t working, so we just don’t add more to the to-do list). Would we see more revenue, more engaged clients, customers or users? Would we see greater profitability, a more engaged workforce, a better brand? I believe we would.
Every organisation I work with is creating and iterating and launching at the moment. It’s an exciting time to be part of teams that are leading and stepping into this season with confidence that we have something good to bring to the table. At a personal level I’ve made the commitment to read and write 6am-8am each Friday morning and I’m considering launching a weekly newsletter. (More to follow). This is phase 1 for me. How can you pivot yourself?
As we step into the next phase, be a leader who recognises the reality of the gradual unwinding, avoid the blame game, spend again but don’t believe the hype and be a creator.
As ever, feedback, comments, additional wisdom always welcomed.