Decision-making and COVID-19
“We’re seeing the world with plague eyes now. We’re all going through the same experiences. People in Seoul, Milan and New Jersey are connected by a virus that reminds us of the fundamental fact of human interdependence.”
— David Brooks, New York Times (“Screw This Virus!” March 19, 2020)
The use of “plague eyes” in the above quote is an interesting turn of phrase. Ironically, though many of us may be seeing the world differently right now, nothing has really changed about the fundamental realities of living. What is different is the fact we are all being forced to confront these realities at the same time. Together. As a worldwide, human family.
Each one of us has always faced the possibility of illness and disease. We live at the mercy of natural disasters, economic downturns (personal or societal), violence and wars. As C.S. Lewis bluntly put it, “…do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before [COVID-19] came along.” (“On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays)
What COVID-19 has uniquely accomplished, however, is to yank the cloak of invisibility off our collective backs. It is revealing as myth the notion that we are in “control” of our lives. Only a month or two ago we all had plans — things we were going to do, places we were going to go, people we were going to see, or projects that felt critically important. And now? Now we are faced with re-thinking and re-imagining what our lives are actually about. What is really important right now are things we utterly took for granted only weeks ago. Things like being able to obtain toilet paper. Staying connected to people we love. Paying rent.
It’s been said, “[w]hen a man knows he is to be hanged…it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” (Samuel Johnson). Worldwide pandemics are a bit like knowing we’re about to be hanged. The re-thinking and re-imagining this creates represents potential gateways to new wisdom and insight, both individually and collectively (as communities and society). But these opportunities don’t produce insight and wisdom automatically. This takes a deliberate openness to learn.
Attempting to find ‘right’ answers is a fool’s errand. What are needed are ‘wise’ answers.
How can we help ourselves become more open to learning? We begin with deep humility, which means acknowledging there are no simple answers. The next step is to truly own that as reality. Until we accept our world is complex with an infinite array of possible actions and paths forward — a world where simple linear cause and effect is a myth in most contexts — then we cannot gain insight or wisdom. If a deck of 52 playing cards has more possible combinations than the earth has atoms, then the possibilities for wise actions in the face of this pandemic are infinite. Attempting to find ‘right’ answers is a fool’s errand. What are needed are ‘wise’ answers.
With this foundation in place, we can turn our conscious attention to pattern spotting — a process by which human beings naturally navigate the complexity of our world. Our ancestors were under no illusions about having control or certainty as they faced the challenges of life. And having no such illusions, they paid close attention to patterns: “Red sky in the morning, sailors take warning. Red sky at night, sailors delight.” Wisdom from a lifetime of seeing patterns in the weather. Of course, there was never any illusion about controlling the weather. The concern was being able to adapt and respond to emerging weather conditions. Attending to patterns is how our company (Spryng.io) and its professional provider network enable those we help gain better insights and take wiser actions (learn more here).
Our challenge in this moment of renewed awareness (courtesy of our ‘plague eyes’) is to discern patterns that emerge out of what looks like chaos. We must then adopt a view to learn and adapt — and look for how we might dampen destructive and unhealthy patterns while amplifying patterns we judge to be constructive and healthy. This is both easy and hard. It is easy in that we are naturally very good at noticing patterns: there are empty toilet paper shelves in all the grocery stores; investors are dumping stocks; factories are tooling up to make protective gear; people are forming groups to check on elderly neighbors. It is easy to see these activities as patterns of harmful or beneficial behaviors. It is hard, however, to dig deeper. To understand what was influencing and shaping those patterns. To understand why some folks went for toilet paper while others began making protective masks.
So how do we dig deeper? How do we make sense of the genuinely infinite complexity of human behaviours and actions that give rise to the fractal patterns unfolding as the COVID-19 pandemic runs its course?
So how do we dig deeper? How do we make sense of the genuinely infinite complexity of human behaviors and actions that give rise to the fractal patterns unfolding as the COVID-19 pandemic runs its course? This is more than a theoretical question. This sense-making is the necessary foundation for choosing wise actions to influence and encourage beneficial patterns.
As humans, we have a natural sensemaking ‘super power’. We share experiences and tell stories. Eavesdrop on any gathering of people with some common interest —farmers at a county fair, carpenters enjoying an early morning coffee at a café, mothers at a daycare center. What do we hear? We hear people sharing anecdotes and stories about things that interest them. Whether the subject is politics, beef prices, or the availability of diapers, human beings make sense of the world through their stories. Whatever opinions we hold are rooted in stories. The problem with typical surveys is that despite being very good at soliciting opinions, they are incapable of capturing the context that informs every opinion we have. The most important aspect of the opinion is therefore abstracted out.
This phenomenon is well known to Anthropologists and Ethnographers. When these professional seek to gain insights into a society or culture, they ask open-ended questions and listen to stories. They look for interesting patterns as they emerge and then explore them. It is a deceptively simple but extraordinarily powerful way to uncover the complex and interdependent webs of relationships and power that inform a community.
The problem with typical surveys is that despite being very good at soliciting opinions, they are incapable of capturing the context that informs every opinion we have. The most important aspect of the opinion is therefore abstracted out.
Historically, this kind of inquiry — one that invites stories and asks questions to facilitate pattern spotting — has only been possible at a very small scale over long periods of time. Trying to gain that contextual richness while exploring a global pandemic has simply not been methodologically possible. Until recently.
In this “information age,” it is technically easy to gather stories and anecdotes from large populations across around the globe. One of the core functions of our software platform (Spryng.io) is all about making it easy for people to share experiences and stories related to their lives and interests. Much more than that, however, the people who share their experiences are immediately invited to interpret what they’ve shared. They do this by answering a short set of questions through which they convey the meaning behind that one experience. Once they submit their story and its interpretation, the software keeps everything together. The interpretation is never removed from its context, and the context is never removed from its interpretation.
It’s impossible to overstate the power this kind of inquiry represents for making sense of otherwise impenetrably complex human systems — like our shared global experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. With the ability to collect tens of thousands — or even hundreds of thousands — of shared experiences and their particular meanings, it suddenly becomes possible to explore the patterns of meaning and meaning making. Negative and positive patterns become evident, as well as the rich context behind them.
This rich and interlinked data (that’s both quantitative and qualitative) provides a foundation for making wise decisions about how we might amplify some patterns and dampen others. Over time these decisions can be tested via the same kind of process, allowing us to more easily observe and measure how patterns have shifted (illuminating, for example, whether there are more of the desirable kinds of stories and fewer of the others). This is what we call Active Sensemaking.
With the ability to collect tens of thousands — or even hundreds of thousands — of shared experiences and their particular meanings, it suddenly becomes possible to explore the patterns of meaning and meaning making. This rich and interlinked data (that’s both quantitative and qualitative) provides a foundation for making wise decisions about how we might amplify some patterns and dampen others.
The COVID-19 pandemic, in yanking off the cloak that hid our vulnerability, represents an opportunity to humbly apply ourselves to learn whatever lessons we can so we can go forward with new resilience and wisdom. This is an unprecedented opportunity to learn together.
We want to help the world hear about everyone’s experiences and the lessons of those experiences. To this end, we invite you to participate in the first of several related instruments our global community of sensemaking practitioners is developing around the COVID-19 pandemic. You can share as many experiences as you wish. Everything is anonymous. Nothing that would allow individuals to be identified will be retained. Please add your voice to the learning.
Far too many people to mention have served as a source of inspiration, guidance and contributions to both Spryng’s COVID-19 initiative and this article. That said, special acknowledgements are owed to a select few, starting with our co-sponsors: Dr. Glenda Eoyang (and members of the Human Systems Dynamics Institute) and Dr. Tamara Wall (and the Desert Research Institute). I also wish to acknowledge the valuable, ongoing guidance from members of the Spryng.io Advisory Board: Dr. Glenda Eoyang, Keith McCandless (and members of the Liberating Structures community), Dr. Robin Pharoah, and Barrett Horne. Substantial contributions of time and talent to this effort have also been provided by Laurie Webster, Jack Speranza, my son Nehemiah Reddy, Desi Raymond, and the 60+ individuals who have provided invaluable feedback on our initial designs.
Ajay Reddy is the founder of Spryng.io, and currently serves as its CEO and Chief Product Officer. He began his professional career as a software engineer, quickly moving into management. For many years he consulted to large enterprises on digital transformation efforts, where meaningful decisions have to be driven by appreciation for the complex environments in which these organizations operate. Sensemaking and other disciplines have been essential to his endeavors.