Defend Truth

Opinionista

There’s no road map for navigating Covid-19; let’s stay alert and keep our heads above water

mm

Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.

When it comes to forecasting, it’s important to strive towards being vaguely right rather than precisely wrong. Traditional forecasting fails because it applies past experiences to assume what will happen in future. What we are going through with Covid-19 is more like whitewater rafting. How we survive is based on keeping our heads above the maelstrom, navigating away from the biggest rocks.

A pilot is at their most dangerous when they’ve logged 100 hours in the air. It seems counterintuitive since pilots gain their PPL, or private pilot’s licence, after about 45 hours, which entitles them to fly solo, so why 100 hours? It’s because that’s when overconfidence creeps in.

We have seen a lot of overconfidence with the Covid-19 pandemic — the tragedy playing out in India shows us precisely how dangerous that can be. It’s easy to point fingers but the reality is that we are all exhausted by lockdown, we are desperate for certainty and closure. In the process we grab on to anything that will give us that, ignoring that it’s a false certainty peddled by false prophets with their own agendas.

There’s no way of actually foretelling the future accurately. Traditional forecasting is guaranteed to fail because of the way we structure how we do it. Human beings have a less than 50% success rate, the truth is you’d have more luck getting a horse to choose between two options, although to be fair, Paul the Octopus did correctly choose Spain as the winner of the Fifa 2010 World Cup in South Africa – and Germany’s third-place playoff against Uruguay. An octopus may well have been a teacher in the frigid waters of False Bay, but there’s no real future for them as oracles.

While we can’t see into the future, we can become better at how we forecast. As Philip Tetlock & Dan Gardner explain in their book Superforecasting, you can train people — especially groups of people – to have far higher degrees of accuracy in their analysis. We do this by working on probabilities, all of them. It also means suspending our confirmation bias, which occurs when we ask the questions to get the answers we want and not ask the questions that reveal the uncomfortable truth.

We evolved a predictive culture at the business school where I work, which turns out to be uncannily close to Tetlock and Gardner’s model, which we used to successfully prepare for the lockdown, pivot our teaching to a virtual platform and still meet our budgets. The model is built around four pillars: stance, thinking, forecasting and our approach to work.

Stance means accepting that nothing is absolute or certain. Things may be highly probable, but they are not predetermined. What happens is not fate or about leaving things in the laps of the gods; things are either highly probable or less probable. The problem is that this fact sticks in the craw of a humanity craving certainty. It’s a problem for old-school leaders too who are determined to always be the masters of the universe and have all the answers. That level of unchallenged self-righteousness is dangerous and, in the case of self-important old surgeons and crusty old pilots (and popular leaders too), possibly catastrophic.

The last thing that times like these (a global pandemic with concomitant high risk) need is dogmatism, especially when the experience of the people calling the shots doesn’t provide the answers, but instead closes out space for different perspectives.

Thinking means cultivating open-mindedness to allow team thinking, encouraging curiosity and fostering self-criticism. It means accepting the possibility that your original idea could be wrong. Extending the thinking process to teams of people allows for the pragmatic eye of the dragonfly approach, integrating multiple visions into one brain. As Tetlock and Gardner write, team thinking boosted the accuracy of forecasting to 60% higher than the norm and 30% higher than intelligence officers.

It’s important too, when it comes to forecasting, to strive towards being vaguely right rather than precisely wrong. It’s all very well being precise and analytical, but if your premise is wrong or uncertain, you’ll end up with a fantastic looking conclusion — but it will be totally incorrect, which is what we see every day with the fake science and the charlatans peddling it. As Norman Adami, SAB CEO, famously said all those years ago, we have to make reality our friend, and this has never been as true as it is now in the middle of a global health crisis. At the same time, perhaps counter-intuitively, it’s also about being less judgemental, because when we condemn another’s apparent stupidity, we are often prone to ignore our own.

We have to increase the maybes, the probabilities in our forecasting, not the absolutes. We don’t need to know exactly how effective masks are in combating the spread of infection, but we do know that in all probability masks will stop more people from being infected than not wearing masks will. We also have to learn to celebrate and encourage candour — the ability to speak the unpleasant truths and own the consequences; like defending lockdown when everyone is clamouring for a return to the old normal — or pointing out the fallacy when the erstwhile leader of the free world half-seriously publicly suggests that injecting bleach into a human body could be a quick fix to finding a vaccine against this coronavirus.

And then there’s the approach to work itself. Growth and improvement shouldn’t be revolutionary flashes in the pan. Instead, it’s high time we adopted the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen; incremental daily improvement, while we develop our own resilience, without losing our empathy. If we can improve what we do, by just 1% a day, the compound effect of that in a year’s time is immense.

Traditional forecasting fails because it applies past experiences to assume what will happen in future. What we are going through at the moment is more like white-water rafting. One moment we are in the calm waters, the next we are in danger of drowning in the maelstrom. How we survive is based on keeping our heads above it, navigating away from the biggest rocks. We have to paddle out of their way, constantly anticipating, scoping, calculating. There’s no road map because the river changes all the time depending on the water level and flow. We’ve got to keep alert and when we do, we increase the probability of us emerging unscathed and whole downstream.

History shows us over and over that maintaining that level of focus and not becoming blasé when the moment of impending danger has passed is our greatest challenge. We face up to crises, we overcome them and then we get comfortable and drop our guard which is why history keeps repeating itself — and which is also why we are not finished with this pandemic by a long shot.

In aviation, there’s a mnemonic called IMSAFE, which is used to assess a pilot’s fitness to fly. It stands for Illness, Medication, Stress, Alcohol, Fatigue and Emotion. It’s a tool that demands that we focus on the job at hand, and stops us from becoming blasé and cutting corners. 

Unfortunately, there isn’t a mnemonic for living through a pandemic. “Mahandiv” might be a start: Wear your Mask, wash your Hands, keep your Distance and Ventilate with fresh air. We know we ought to do this. We know the virus mutates. We know infection rates can spike and then run away with us like it is doing at the moment in India — somehow we think it can’t happen here. That’s how catastrophes occur, it’s not fate.

The true tragedy is that it could have been avoided if we had only stayed alert. DM

Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c), it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address Covid-19. We are, therefore, disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information we should know about, please email [email protected]co.za
Gallery

"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted