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Terrible Solutions to COVID-19 That Definitely Won’t Work, and Why You Should Think About Them Anyway

(Without nuance, our decisions and results get worse)

Please plan now to ignore any recommendations about health policy in this article. I’m not a virologist, epidemiologist, or any other kind of ologist. And there are no real “solutions” to COVID-19 anyway, as far as I can tell — just various actions that change the balance between various outcomes which may or may not be predictable in advance. I have no earthly idea of what the best path forward is. I can only promise I won’t be the one to figure it out, I won’t be the one to advocate for it, and I won’t be the one to implement it. But I am an expert at something else, and it’s something I believe to be badly needed at the moment: intelligent group decision making for optimal results.

That sounds boring, I know, and in the best of times, it sort-of is. Oh, how I miss those times. You see, I work with executives and leaders who run complex organizations doing complicated things that require trade-offs and coordination. I help people achieve the best results possible by navigating what feel like nonstop impossible decisions made in groups, by opinionated people, daily. From seemingly big questions like “do we invent a next-generation offering or try to elongate the life of the current one?” to middle-of-the-road decisions like “which initiatives do we fund, and which do we cancel?” to arcane compromises like “do we optimize for the use case of Customer A or Customer B?” it’s all about decisions and the actions that follow. In fact, I guess you could say that I’m all about getting groups of people with competing agendas and expertise to the table to repeatedly make and implement tough decisions — decisions with which some of them don’t agree — even as the present is unclear and the future less clear. And they do it, not because it’s fun, but because they know their success depends upon taking smart action today and on learning from inevitable mistakes quickly to take even smarter action tomorrow.

Does that sound useful to you right about now? It sure does to me.

The thing is, one of the hallmarks of intelligent decision-making in that context is that it consistently involves nuance. Esoteric yet important questions delve into specific past issues, deep-dive discussions explore key unknowns, and hybrid solutions emerge that replace either/or thinking with subtle, complex layering of various alternatives: Take key components of the current-generation offering as the starting point for the new one. Define a new initiative to achieve 80% of the benefits of the three we can’t afford to fund. Influence Customers A and B to nudge their use cases closer together. That’s nuance! But for my aversion to irony and the travel restrictions currently in place, I would drive to a mountaintop and shout it over the lands: “if your process doesn’t include nuance, your decisions will be suboptimal.”

(Or “crappy,” I suppose, depending upon the mood at the mountaintop.)

Unsurprisingly, I’ve been driven absolutely batty lately by the binary politicization of what should be a slew of complex alternatives related to the management of COVID-19’s fiery tear through our global population. The vast bulk of decision-making narrative, at least within the U.S., seems to be stuck on the question of whether everyone should stay at home, thereby destroying the economy, or return to work and life, thereby accelerating the virus. Conspicuously absent is nuance. So, as a potential antidote, I’d like to offer you some alternative ideas which I have not seen discussed, and which would not work. Your assignment, as you read them, is to notice the extent to which your thinking about possible solutions changes and expands as you consider a wider variety of actions.

[[Related: The Ladder of Inference Creates Bad Judgement (Video)]]

But first, one more time, a loud disclaimer for anyone preparing to lambast me for giving bad advice: this isn’t advice. I’m not an anything-ologist and I don’t think you should do these things. I’m saying you should think about them, with your brain, as you sit and read, and then notice what happens, with your brain, before getting up and not doing anything recommended here. Fair enough?

Here we go: what if we separated the population into three groups: high risk, low risk, and “bridge” individuals who are themselves low risk but interact regularly with the high-risk population? Could we treat the three populations differently? Equip them differently? Maybe even regulate them differently? Could the low-risk group start doing more things together, accelerating whatever form of herd immunity comes from broader population exposure? Would that allow the high-risk group additional latitude to isolate and stay safe for a longer period of time? Could someone’s 80-year-old mother be safer at home for longer if someone else’s 30-year-old brother came out of unemployment to somehow handle more of her current needs for running around following safer protocols?

Notice what happens: your knee-jerk reaction is probably something along the lines of “that’s dumb and it wouldn’t work!” You’re right, but remember, we’re just thinking here, not doing. Run with the thought, because your objection is the first nudge toward useful questions: It wouldn’t work because we can’t figure out who to assign to which category? How could we figure that out? It wouldn’t work because people would implement it incorrectly? OK, what kind of communication and/or oversight would be needed? Let each reason why not lead you to questions, ideas, alternatives, and even more questions: In what ways is a version of this already happening? Which if any groups would be most harmed by this scenario? Which if any would be most helped? Which parts of it seem easy to do? Which seem impossible? That’s where the nuance hides.

[[Related: The Way Out is Through. Your Management Must Save You Now. Here’s How]]

If you want more nuance, try more bad solutions! What if we parsed out days of the week by age group? What if grocery shoppers pushed carts with one hand and touched store items with the other? What if retail outlets vacated every few hours for ten minutes of airborne disinfectant distribution? Would daylight spectrum lighting be useful in indoor spaces? Could face shields be handed out with shopping carts? Could limousine privacy screen designs be quickly adapted to Ubers and Lyfts? Could inflatable bounce-house manufacturing be employed to create see-through barrier-play structures for groups of kids? For each of these, and each of your own, follow your thoughts, objections, and questions to the nuance behind them.

Nuance: it’s what’s for dinner — or at least what we’re hungry for. Whether you’re working on COVID-19 or the next agenda item in your staff meeting, you’ll know you’re heading in the right direction when people start talking about various aspects of the problem, and debating the merits of creative overlapping solutions, instead of defending a limited number of mutually exclusive positions (often shouting loudly while doing so). I recommend you pay close attention to this, because it’s critically important whenever groups of people find themselves needing to create complex solutions together, even though the facts are confusing, the people who have them don’t agree, and nobody knows what’s going to happen next.

These days, it sure feels like that’s all of us. Good luck out there.

Originally published at Medium.com.

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