Solving COVID-19: Eliminate the Impossible

April 19th, 2020

“You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative
And latch on to the affirmative, don’t mess with Mister In-Between”

(Johnny Mercer)

When a massively disruptive event perturbs any highly ordered system the lack of agility in that system inevitably stimulates a range of responses which can best be characterised as “thrashing about”. That is not a criticism, simply a report of the observable response. If in doubt, watch the news, read the paper, there is a lot of thrashing about right now!

Once the scale of the perturbation begins to be understood there is: for government the pursuit of reassurance, for regulators an assertion that it is “a big challenge” but they have it “all under control”, for service providers a rush to “do something”. Those services with a strong operational bias will do strong operational stuff in an attempt to convince themselves THEY have it all under control. They will strut their stuff, quite probably beyond the bounds of reasonableness. Meanwhile researchers will assert either that there is no answer, that they have the answer or that they are working on the answer and just need more time. Everybody needs “more resources”.

Assertion based on observation:

Most countries have highly ordered, low agility organisational systems for provision of public services.

They are, in a non-pejorative sense, bureaucracies.

Ergo nearly all countries will thrash about when stressed with the unexpected.

Bureaucracy is founded on the idea that everything can be arranged through a system of offices (bureaux) with individuals appointed to those offices on the basis of their expertise.

Assertion based on research:

Any bureaucracy is designed to solve the problem or address the challenge that confronted its designer. It is created to do and employs people to do what is already doable but with reliability and integrity. It is inherently non-adaptive.

Assertion on the nature of crises:

They are crises precisely because we do not have an established way of dealing with them. Crises require adaptive capability.

Conclusion on the current situation:

Our current organisations cannot solve the problem confronting them.

As Einstein is claimed to have said:

“We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”

We need diversity in our institutional research, academic and public sector ecosystem to enhance resilience and at least some of that diversity has been lost over the last generations in the pursuit of short run efficiency. All, in fairness, with the best of intent.

We are in the midst of what will come to be seen as a paradigm shift. There will be difference emerging in the way we have to be to survive. Meanwhile, globally, the bureaucratic responses all tend towards the oppressive; governments in fear of loss of control or votes enact increasingly inadequately informed measures for the “protection’” of citizens whilst attempting to solve the problem within the existing paradigm. The bureaucracy itself, notwithstanding the outstanding, sincere and determined efforts of many great people, lives with exposure to real accountability or “blame”. Its leaders, often distanced from the personal, commercial and financial realities confronting many people and organisations, point at the weaknesses and challenges of alternative approaches whilst failing to make any offer other than a prolonged march through established bureaucratic processes with some parts abbreviated “for the duration”. Again, in fairness, the marketisation of public services has generated competition for resources and position which, today, we might think unhelpful!

Meanwhile people die, if not of the primary cause then of its rapidly emerging consequences: unemployment, hunger, deprivation, homelessness, loneliness and isolation, hopelessness, depression.   

What is needed in a crisis is the radical, the iconoclastic, the subversive; individuals whose thinking and doing challenges the status quo; their time has come. Governments urgently need to erupt from the bureaucratic miasma that ensnares them. In a situation (any situation, not just COVID-19) where we are evidently quite unsure of the question and nobody knows the answer, any possible way forward which is demonstrably non-lethal should be properly evaluated, progressing until it fails.

“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” (Arthur Conan Doyle)

To prevent the crisis overwhelming the people, the economies, industries and countries under threat, government, any government, every government, needs to devise a rapid process for capturing, sharing and progressing possible resolutions – whether curative, prophylactic, medical, methodological or social. This rapid process must be non-bureaucratic, it will perhaps be chaotic, it will certainly not be conventionally efficient, it will be unconventionally effective. Advantage must be taken of every idea until it is shown to be fatally flawed.

Simple search processes, using all the data held about the ideas that do, or don’t, work will enable the rapid carving out of a possible “solution” space (defined by all the things that don’t work) enabling a concentration of effort on all the things that MIGHT work. Such a process is the most likely path to rapid resolution.

Diversity of experiment would of course stimulate research, generate new economic activity, with the ideas and their evaluation openly shared they will perhaps contain the seeds to spawn a whole new industry.

“All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them”. (Galileo Galilei)