Fear, Frustration and Hope in a Covid19 threatened Digital World


Photo by CDC on Unsplash

We live in unprecedented times. With Covid19, we are in a global war with an invisible enemy – a war in which we are both potential victims of, and foot soldiers for that enemy. We all live in fear for ourselves, and even more so for our families – our parents, children and grandchildren, as well as for all those who are more exposed and at risk to this unseen yet ever-present enemy.

At a time like this we need strong, decisive and transparent leadership at all levels. Leadership that must also be compassionate and comforting in helping us understand that we are all in this together, and that collectively we can and must play our part in beating this enemy. Here, in Canada, and in our province, British Columbia, we are seeing that, as we are generally across Canada. But this is a global war with an enemy that moves fast and silently, and respects no borders and no-one, and that can be anywhere at any time. At a time like this, it is immensely frustrating that we are not seeing a collaborative global response to this global enemy. Instead, from many leaders across the world – some more so than others – we have seen, and are seeing: Denial instead of action; Delay instead of speed; Secrecy instead of openness; Division instead of unification; Competition instead of collaboration; putting Self-Interest ahead of the interest of the people, and (largely driven by that same self-interest) putting National Interest instead of global interest…and the list goes on.

In what we once referred to as the IT space, but what is now increasingly becoming an all-encompassing digital world, we have suffered from similar failures of leadership for decades. We have seen, and continue to see many billions of dollars spent on technology with all too often little or no value being delivered as a result of those expenditures.

In this current crisis, it is frustrating to see the inability of aging technology systems – systems that have been neglected for far too long, to respond to critical needs in an agile and timely way. We are experiencing the result of years or decades of little or no investment in maintaining and updating our technology infrastructure. Where new investments have been made, they have all too often failed to deliver the expected value – assuming that value was even clearly defined at the outset, which is generally the exception rather than the rule. These investments are often made without clear understanding, ownership and accountability from the business or organizational leadership, and without inclusive and ongoing engagement of those who have to use and live with the systems and applications resulting from those investments.

But there is also hope. During this crisis we have seen, and continue to see the ability of organizations and individuals in all sectors to pivot to new ways of delivering their products and services. As Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s CEO, summed it up, Social distancing rules have brought forward the adoption of a wide range of technologies by two years. A comment echoed by Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai predicting a “significant and lasting” impact from the forced move to online work, education, shopping, medicine and entertainment.

In the case of healthcare, digitally-enabled services that have been discussed for years or, in some cases decades, have been delivered in a few weeks. Manufacturers have retooled their production to produce respirators and Personal Protection Equipment. Distilleries have switched production from liquor to hand sanitizer.  In response to a request from local hospitals, Quinn Callander, a 12 year old boy scout in Vancouver, Canada answered a request from the local hospitals for a device to help relieve severe pain from pressure and friction of wearing masks for long periods. Working with his 3D printer, and by prototyping several designs, he developed a simple but effective “ear guard” strap. In just a few weeks, he has produced 1,700 such straps, a volunteer group he is part of has made an additional 5,000 straps, and he has made the design available for others to download[1]. Across America, makers of all ages and skill-levels have thrown themselves into helping to alleviate the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). Some are actually making masks, shields and gowns. Others are collaborating on designs, and making those designs public. Still others are trying to figure out how to get PPE to those who need it most as quickly as possible. These charitable tinkerers provide ground for both a deeply American sort of hope—strangers doing as much as they can, wherever they can, for the good of their neighbours—and despair, at the colossal federal failure that inspired them[2].

An article in the April 25th edition of The Economist under the heading “Creative Disruption” discusses the pandemic “liberating firms to experiment with new ideas”, and being to do so at breakneck speed, and without huge financial outlays. But, as evidenced above, it’s more than that. It is actually liberating organizations of all types, and in all sectors, as well as individuals of all ages across the world to do so. As Michael Waters said on April 30th in the Financial Times, “The pandemic is working on all the main levers that affect the pace of digital adoption: consumer behaviour, business processes and government regulation”.

We are seeing examples of outstanding leadership coming from everywhere and anywhere, but not, in all too many cases, from those in “official” leadership positions in the public and private sector. The challenge ahead, when the Covid19 crisis is brought under control, to whatever extent that may happen, is how to keep the momentum, and not slip back, as The Economist article says, to our comfortable traditional world of  ‘“analysis paralysis”, an affliction caused by top managers having pored over the same irrelevant case studies at business school.’ We need to tap in to that outstanding, yet previously unrecognized leadership that is everywhere and everywhere. This will require rethinking, or blowing up previous models of leadership and management

We need to ask ourselves, when the crisis abates, are we going to fall back to the traditional world of ineffective leadership, bloated inefficient bureaucracies, and disengaged employees and citizens, or are we going to learn from the crisis and move forward together to a better world. A world in which leadership is a behaviour, recognized, nurtured and rewarded throughout an organization, with leadership at the top playing a role akin to some combination of an orchestra conductor, and an air traffic controller. A world in which: Bureaucracy, a term coined roughly two centuries ago is no longer fit for purpose when today’s employees are skilled, not illiterate; Competitive Advantage comes from innovation, not sheer size; Communication is instantaneous, not tortuous; and the Pace of Change is hypersonic, not glacial. A world in which employees, as in the case of China’s Haier, are engaged as “energetic entrepreneurs, and an open ecosystem of users, inventors and partners replaces formal hierarchy”[3].

[1] Source: Fast Company, April 9, 2020, “This 12-year-old invented an ingenious solution to one of the biggest problems with masks”

[2] Source: The Economist, April 30, 2020, “America’s Makers and tinkerers turn their hands to PPE

[3] Source: The End of Bureaucracy, Gary Hamel and Michael Zanini, Harvard Business Review, November-December 1918 Issue