Thinking about disruption and innovation
Disruption has been a dominant if not disruptive theme for the last few years, and seems particularly relevant now. The concept was initially used to describe business models and economic position, but now seems to be applicable to just about everything.
Remember that old mantra, move fast and break things? Is that not the pandemic strategy we’re now seeing in action?
Of all the buzzwords or loaded industry trends from the pre-pandemic world, disruption may be one of the few that remains constant and demonstrates longevity. It was and remains a desirable ability, a force to understand, and a process to heed.
When speaking to audiences about the subject, I’d always ask, are you disrupting, or are you being disrupted? Most people would raise their hand indicating they feel disrupted. That’s part of what motivates them to want to learn about disruption. If not to be the disruptor, at least to avoid being disrupted.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, in the context of the pandemic induced crisis we’re now in the early stages of. One of my favourite metaphors or cliches is the idea of how do you outrun a bear? The answer is you don’t have to. You just need to outrun the other person trying to outrun the bear.
In this context the bear is the crisis (as well as the virus). I can’t escape either, but I can do my best to keep ahead of most people. Hustle up the learning curve of the crisis and figure out what I need to do before other people do (or at least as many as possible).
There will probably be little to no events for a year or maybe longer. That means little to no public speaking income for me. Yet that hasn’t stopped me from working every day, whether writing this newsletter, doing my research, or hustling to find new opportunities and challenges. The thing to do, in my view, is to maintain momentum, and practice resilience in the face of adversity. Adapt, pivot, and persevere.
This is partly what it means to be an entrepreneur, but is also a reflection of literacy, i.e. the ability to recognize patterns, and the willingness to always be learning. However I also think it is a reflection of disruption, that rather than wait to be disrupted, you’re finding ways to take advantage of new opportunities, or not be limited by legacy structures and frameworks.
I’ve always been uncomfortable with how the concept of disruption has been so closely associated with Silicon Valley and tech companies, when I think it is not exclusive to them, and is much closer to the notion of resilience. As such I believe it can be translated to individuals, and their relationship with their world. I have been struggling with how to express this, but found the following essay helpful in moving this concept forward:
One of the central arguments of this essay is that working people, especially trades, are forced to adapt all the time. Their experience based wisdom nurtures a kind of resilience that institutional elites might regard as novel, or disruptive.
As a result, they watch this crisis unfold and wonder why leaders and institutions are not adapting as they would. Hence the “thin facade of authority.” This creates a credibility gap, especially as the narrative around the pandemic shifts.
So far in this crisis, our elite have let us down in a manner the muscularly wise have never done.
Take any contentious issue—travel bans, the advantages of masks, the Chinese compromising of WHO, the entire industry of grievance politics infecting criticism of China’s despicable behavior, delayed testing by the Centers for Disease Control and FDA, modeling, the efficacy of antimalarial drugs—and our elite seem unable to admit they were wrong, and wrong with a great deal of costly arrogance.
It is no exaggeration to say that most models that the best and brightest offered the public, from the imported Imperial College in London to those from the University of Washington and many more besides, were not just inaccurate, but quite mistaken in two tragic ways: First, they were accepted as gospel by governments and thus their flawed assumptions became the basis for policies that in many cases may prove counterproductive. Second, the modelers themselves either did not promptly correct their warped inputs, or were not completely forthcoming about their data and methodologies, or blamed their flawed assumptions on others or circumstances beyond imagination, or claimed that their mistakes were in fact salutary—if not sorta, kinda planned—in galvanizing a presumably infantile public to accept draconian measures that it otherwise would not.
The article above reflects a growing opposition that I think is worth understanding, especially if our success in navigating this crisis requires some kind of consensus or wide spread adoption of public health measures.
The critique that the leaders of our institutions (and the institutions as a whole) have let us down is definitely fair. If you move fast and break things, the people who are broken or who have to pick up the pieces are not going to be happy. The consequences of disruption can often be severe, and the lack of resilience is a clear indication of who was disrupted. In this case governments that reduced or ignored necessary funding for public health and pandemic preparedness.
I don’t agree with much that is said in this article, but it does provide a reasoned example of where the opposition is and why. It also provides insight into what it would take to get this growing contingent to be onside with public health efforts. A whole lot more transparency, flexibility, humility, and most importantly, resilience. And perhaps less gimmicks and dashboards that are transparently flawed:
The result of scientific arrogance, without practical audit, presents as something like the surreal online “world meter” data on the hourly progress of the virus. Such sites offer superficially impressively precise, but ultimately flawed, information on COVID-19 cases, mortality, and lethality and infection—without label warnings that neither the number of actual active or past infectious cases, nor the percentage of those who die from, rather than with, can yet be accurate. Much less are we informed by such electronic meters of the absolute unreliability of statistics from China and other authoritarian countries.
I find this essay relevant because it is articulating what we’ve been discussing, but from a different perspective. In the early days of this pandemic, I wondered if there was a narrative disorder in how we describe what is going on. That divergent stories of what is happening to us, reflective of different experiences, will only serve to escalate the conflict. In that context I was trying to be critical of language that says we’re at war, as it only escalates tension and possibly misplaces where the sacrifice should be.
Which brings us back to the question of who is being disrupted. Who is being alienated by what is currently happening, and pushed to revolt or defy as a result.
Elite wisdom, which in its allegiance to the scientific method eventually is likely to find an antidote and vaccination against the virus, still fails us in so many other ways in which it should not, in part also because its high priests rarely face the consequences of their own ideological and scientific pronouncements.
Whatever the end result of this crisis, few at the WHO, CDC or the state health directors are going to lose their jobs in a way the small restaurateurs and Uber drivers most certainly will.
When the corporate lawyer, under 65 and not a health-care worker, rails that the know-nothings wish to endanger him by restarting the economy, despite a 5-in-1,000 chance of dying if infected, his argument is not based on existential need, nor is it part of the lose-lose landscape of his supposed social inferiors who are willing to risk a small chance of severe infection to prevent a very likely chance of going broke and ruining an entire family.
The mismanagement of this crisis began by neglecting pandemic preparedness, however it is amplified by moving fast and breaking things while not also recognizing the responsibility of dealing with what you broke.
There could have been a better public policy response, that harmonized the we’re in it together message of public health with the broader socio-economic situation. Instead the dominant message of each one for themselves that the economy constantly demands, is naturally pushing people to break from the herd and think of themselves.
Contributing to this tension is the poor expectations management being practiced by public health officials and governments. For example, we have our hopes resting on a vaccine, but it may not be the magic bullet people are hoping or gambling for:
This is a fascinating and chilling twitter thread I recommend reading. It includes links that provide excellent context and medical evidence.
The gist of the argument is that this virus is highly infectious and actively mutating. Not only might a vaccine not be highly effective, it may not last long, requiring regular (research into) vaccines.
I’m not sure if this kind of nuance is being effectively communicated to the public. It helps explain why a vaccine may be a long ways off, but also why a vaccine alone may not be sufficient.
There’s good reason to believe that how we live, how we work, and how we relate to each other is changing dramatically as a result of this crisis. It’s understandable for people to feel powerless in the face of it, and suspect that they’ve not been fully informed, if not are being lied to. While I think the latter is not the case, it is a symptom of distrust and perceived illegitimacy.
I imagine this will get worse as we carve out some critical distance from this pandemic-induced crisis and have the time to look back at how all this happened.
This article documents some of the stupidity and contradictions that happened in the early days of this crisis. Which was not that long ago! I can remember feeling frustrated trying to communicate to friends and family how serious the situation was.
While we can appreciate and understand how difficult it may have been for leaders to anticipate the scale or speed of this crisis, we can also recognize that the contradictions and conflicting messages have left a legacy of distrust and cynicism.
And it’s definitely fair to ask about these unheeded early warnings. But what I found when I started reading the academic literature on emerging diseases is that there are simply too many of these simulations and draft plans to count. We’ll go over a few more before this story is done. Each reads in hindsight like a lost opportunity to build defences against calamity. Each was intended as warning and help by its authors.
As a distinct academic discipline, attempts to imagine and arm against unfamiliar new infections are about three decades old. The term “emerging viruses” was coined in 1990. Researchers and governments worked to learn about these unfamiliar threats, to develop global early-warning systems, and to develop an international rulebook for triggering government response. Authorities had plenty of chances to test their responses against nasty real-world surprises. SARS in Toronto in 2003. Swine flu in Mexico in 2009.
In the end it didn’t help much.
And the following two paragraphs in particular, tell you a lot about why people are understandably upset about how this has played out and how the shut down remains illegitimate, and will be difficult to maintain for the kind of timeline public health authorities continue to insist on:
Kenneth Bernard is a retired rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service, which issues rank and uniforms to senior officials up to the Surgeon General. He ran pandemic preparedness operations under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “What you’re seeing now is not the result of massive intellectual input into appropriate response,” he said in a telephone interview. “What you’re seeing now is, ‘Oh my God. What’s going on? We’ve got to close everything down until we can figure this out.’ That’s not a sophisticated intellectual response. That’s a, ‘The ship is sinking, plug the hole’ kind of response.
“And it’s really important to see that. I mean, this is not what people would have planned to do.” Here he paused to chuckle bitterly. “Shutting down the world economy and putting millions of people out of work and dropping our GDP by 15 per cent is not anybody’s idea of a good plan. It’s what you do when you get caught off-guard and you have nothing else in your toolkit.”
This is a long article, and really gets into the weeds when it comes to why politics and governments are incredibly dysfunctional when it comes to conceiving, responding, and managing a pandemic. However this passage in particular reinforces why this may be an issue of disruption, and fit the larger framework that the disruption concept evokes:
“The bandwidth for science” at the federal health department “is quite narrow,” Forest said. “Nearly nonexistent at Health Canada and very narrow at the [Public Health] Agency itself. They didn’t know who they should follow on Twitter. They didn’t know which experts to connect to in the U.S. to know how they should react. They had nothing of the sort. And in part this is a capacity issue. It’s not their fault, it’s the fact that we have let the agency invest in very different activities, maybe since the start.”
Disruption is made possible when organizations or institutions become atrophied or have blind spots. In this case both happened. The lack of capacity resulted in blind spots and rigidity that made it difficult to respond to this crisis.
All a reflection or by-product of a deeper organizational and professional culture:
This Groundhog Day pattern of erasing earlier gains must be frustrating, but Bernard believes it’s human nature. “No one in the national-security realm likes dealing with public-health officials. They just don’t want to do it. If they’d wanted to do it, they would have become doctors or epidemiologists. But national-security people like bi-national, confrontational politics. They like chest-thumping, big-boy stuff. They don’t deal with little things like climate or human rights.”
Bernard asked me whether I’ve ever had serious surgery done. No, I said, but family members have. “All right. Take the personality of your big-time surgeon and tell them that they’re now going to become a pediatrician for six months. Can you imagine that personality sitting, talking to moms and screaming kids all day long? I can’t.”
When the people in power are too macho or disinterested to learn about complex systems and even more complex systemic phenomena, we end up with a cognitive deficit, that disconnects expertise, knowledge, context, and decision making power. This is where you have public health officials making decisions without the knowledge or understanding of the political and economic consequences.
Instead what we needed were leaders willing to improve their scientific and medical literacy, as well as organizations who were willing and able to prepare for crisis like this by fostering true inter-disciplinary collaboration.
As a result, public health remained a ghetto of do-gooders who were effectively ignored until we depended upon them, at which point we could barely comprehend their advice.
No wonder they were ripe for disruption.
Brittle systems break. Flexible systems adapt. Moving forward, we should foster more responsiveness, while embracing that innovation is a necessary response to this disruption, and it will not come via business as usual.