2020 Rhymes With 1942: A national scramble.

If “History never repeats itself, but sometimes it rhymes.”, attributed to Mark Twain, then this year (2020) rhymes a lot with 1942, our first year of WWII. That war’s first year was, in hindsight, a shambles of fear, mobilization chaos, military missteps, and emergent leadership. We began a moral descent into the obscenely violent, making soldier and sailor shredding decisions as combat atrocities enraged our better angels. The war permanently changed us. We made unimaginably hard choices as the slaughter wore us down. When WWII was over we counted 405,399 deaths and 1,076,245 total casualties. To date (Oct 18, 2020) the CDC counts 211,390 confirmed or probable COVID-19 related deaths, recognizing most deaths are actually comorbidities and not the virus itself. 200K is still a big number — about half the number of battlefield wounded in WWII.

Given the size and scale of the COVID-19 response — a war size endeavor, there are similarities with our last true national conflict, WWII. Early on, we did not understand the size and scope of what we faced. A few, politically powerless subject area specialists — pre-war planners in the 1930’s and a few epidemiologists most recently, correctly sketched some scenarios. it would take actual casualty rates and widespread community impacts to get our undivided attention. Once the war gripped our attention, our initial planning and tactical execution was abysmal, stumbling in the fog of battle. For example, our first efforts in mechanized warfare in Operation Torch in North Africa, were appalling. When COVID-19 ambushed New York City, Governor Cuomo stupidly sent contagious patients back to hyper-high risk senior care facilities (essentially COVID-grenading them). .

WWII mobilized almost every productive person, men and women, into economic activity. It changed the employment landscape for generations. COVID-19 social distancing requirements has shattered the economy. It has been so lethal and disruptive the new normal will be telecommuting.

What not to do? Make everything political since this is an election year.

What to do? Colonel John Boyd offers the way forward. His seminal work on the OODA Loop is the best way to navigate our COVID-19 response:

OBSERVE the environments, such as the virus itself, populations, comorbidities, always careful to separate correlations from causations.
ORIENT our response capabilities to minimize the virus’s impacts.
DECIDE what the best course of action it.
ACT with focus.

We must execute this OODA Loop as fast as possible, in all appropriate environments, obviously in hospitals, schools, homes, localities, states, and at the federal level. Each environment will have a different loop experience. Success with come with sharing what we learn without political distortion. The tactics and decisions we make early in this battle will be found wanting as we learn. We must grade ourselves on how well we improve our COVID-19 response.

There will be heartbreaking decisions to make, the magnitude of which will increase as more citizens are impacted. Ultimately, we must be willing to accept some level of casualties to save the lives and futures for the most citizens. We must balance the welfare of all of us against the risks of the relatively few.

Judge Crisis Leaders By Their Course Corrections

This is a post as much to myself as to my readers (Thank you!).

I have spent most of my professional life facilitating teams from good to great business process improvement to dumpster fire-interventions. Regarding these crises events, there are two kinds of work: first, solve the immediate problem and stabilize the situation, then secondly, after an after-action analysis, design and implement better practices that prevent a recurrence.

It is pointless to criticize leaders for not doing something good sooner. We simply don’t live with a real-time awareness of the events that trigger a crisis. Hindsight points out what was missed or not appreciated at the time. What matters is what one does with what one is focused.

We judge leaders in crisis management moments by the quality of their course corrections. Meaning, how fast can they cycle their OODA Loop. How fast do they Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. When two combat aircraft meet in arial combat (the perspective John Boyd applied to develop OODA Loop theory), the combatant that cycled the best OODA loop won. If the opponents are otherwise equal, the faster OODA loop won the day. Save the “What and why things went wrong?” questions for later — after the crisis is managed and when it is time to do so. Bugging crisis managers with whining and complaining about how and why things are FUBAR is a distraction to be rebuffed.

I have watched President Trump’s cycling through this COVID-19 crisis OODA Loop with no small interest. (My own company’s primary service is on pause because it requires teams to meet in person.) The simplest tasks are ridiculously complicated at very high frequency. Diagnose, isolate and treat a few COVID-19 virus-infected patients with a ventilator in a sealed room is not that difficult (respecting it is technical work). To treat hundreds of such patients in hundreds of locations, ramping up a capability from a near standing start within a few weeks is a massively complex undertaking with potentially catastrophic unintended consequences, like collapsing our economy. Our expectations from our government at all levels is at a wartime high.

I’m pretty impressed with the President so far. To be clear, I find his communication style a bit obnoxious, especially his use of conversation-leading and framing on Twitter. It is a very effective persuasion and negotiation entry technique. It includes exaggeration and hyperbole and setting expectations well above the actual satisfactory agreement positions. Mr. Trump’s fake news counter-punching has destroyed the media’s monopoly on setting the terms of public debate.

Setting that aside, is the president’s OODA Loop spun up? I think so. For example, his appointment of Ambassador Deborah Bisx, MD for the White House Coronavirous Response Coordinator is spot on. She is a fabulously informed and articulate expert on infectious diseases having managed the nation’s work on HIV/AIDS reductions. He has made a number of startling decisions that appear to be based on the advice of our very best scientists. He’s has not delegated the one thing he must absolutely accomplish — project the right attitude and demonstrate the right core values. We will beat this virus, no matter what, for the right reasons, using every resource available, including winning the national narrative.

After the dust clears and this crisis is in our rear view mirror, it will be time to assess Mr. Trump’s performance. Will he have set us on a course for new policies and practices based on the lessons learned?

In the mean time, how am I executing my OODA Loop? For my business. And my life.

P.S. The leader I am most impressed with is New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. His articulate, straight-talking briefings are simply superb.