Confront a future crisis in the making before it actually starts showing up. Technology, innovations and 'helpful Cassandras' should do their part. Image Credit: Ador Bustamante/©Gulf News

We always do the right thing in a crisis – almost! Why can’t we manage that way all the time?

Many businesses stumbled, but were able to grapple with the COVID-19 crisis well enough. They made fast, courageous decisions – even though it proved painful at times. They dropped internal politics and posturing.

Sworn competitors in industries such as pharmaceuticals shared incredibly sensitive information, and worked together for the common good. They mobilised a work-from-home army, which turned out to be, for the most part, surprisingly productive.

Researchers reaffirm that if our brain never encountered anything that was different from its existing mental models, it would never change its thinking. Contact with surprise is the starting point for imagination.

Another 'golden age'?

Looks like the pandemic turned out to be an accelerant to all things technological, and it’s also becoming an accelerant to a number of other significant trends in business. One of the more interesting post-pandemic possibilities is the potential emergence of a new “golden age”. We may be on the brink of a new renaissance, not dissimilar to the way in which it took the Bubonic plague to shake loose the ossified structures of the middle ages.

Another surprise, and a far less pleasant one, was how badly our systems were prepared for the pandemic, despite literally multiple warnings that it was a matter of when, not whether, one would occur. As early as 2017, Betsy McKay had predicted not only the likelihood of a pandemic, but also that it would probably come from bats, naming specific places where human/bat contacts were likely.

Now or later?

This gets to one of the more difficult human challenges: How to see what’s around the corner. This is persuading us to take action that costs something or make an effort in the here-and-now when there’s still a chance that if we just push it off into the future we won’t be affected.

As an analogy, what is needed perhaps is ‘cathedral thinking’. Those people working on cathedrals in the Middle Ages did so knowing for the most part that they would never see them completed, with some taking literally centuries to be finished – yet, their commitment to making an enduring impact led to a long-term perspective.

That brings us back to the question of how we can nudge people to take action in the present when we don’t know for sure what the future will hold. There are several factors that make it more likely that we’ll both pay attention and do something about it.

• A vivid story: Removing the so-called Y2K bug, in which computer systems were programmed with only two digits for the year, cost a stunning $100 billion. Even today, there are those who feel that the risks of something going wrong were overblown. But the experts working tirelessly behind the scenes didn’t think so – as a top CEO reflected years later, he wouldn’t have been confident in day-to-day activities like flying if the work had not been done.

• Helpful Cassandras: An important source of information that something real and significant is about to happen is what Andy Grove famously called “helpful Cassandras”. These are people, often with a technical or scientific background, who see the implications of new development and can alert leaders to them. Take Kodak and a senior researcher who was all excited about a potential, market-defining innovation, only to be met with the phrase “but the market doesn’t exist?”

• Multiple resource pools and champions: A characteristic of systems that build in greater resilience is that they have multiple potential responses. This is why monocultures in biology are bad – let something affect that one type of plant, say, and you can end up with a famine. Same in business and politics too.

• Change the incentives: Another way to make sure that people care about the future is to require them to have a stake in what happens down the road. This is the intuition behind “clawbacks in financial services” – lessening the short-term gains that can be created by excessively risky speculation. It is also the traditional way in which investment firms balanced risk and reward, by operating as partnerships.