In the Culture of “Me,” we Exist Because of “Us”

The biggest crisis we're facing today is not a lack of means to solve problems. It's not the desire to make things happen. It's not even the lack of (insert flavor the year) skills. Though we can use better questions and thinking to improve all of them.

No, our biggest crisis is one of hubris: 1./ To think that there exist exceptional individuals who are going to swoop in and make everything better, without fully understanding what's required; and 2./ To judge what happens elsewhere irrelevant, without understanding what is happening because of it.

This is the fallacy, to think that you won't feel the impact of a developing trend down the road. It happened with technology disruption at various stages of business evolution. It happens when we fail to have a backup for the worst case scenario.

Use time wisely

China shut down cities and the entire country. The whole world watched and, by and large, moved on. There was early information about the crisis. But then it got drowned by fake news, memes, and lots of other noise.

In an age of continuous partial attention, people prefer not to get involved with information. Discovery means active involvement. Involvement means commitment, and everyone is already maxed out.

Yet, when is the time to know if you're ready for something unexpected? Something that could potentially jeopardize your company? You'd be correct to answer that the right time to prepare is now. You may not know what will happen, but you do know what could happen that would be bad for business.

As it was the case with CoViD-19 in China, it was not a question of “if,” or question of “where.” Paolo Giordano explains about using time to your advantage in Corriere della Sera (translation mine):

A portion of the bewilderment, of the sense of anxiety of these hours, derives from having repeatedly neglected this timeline. The infection, once started in one area, proceeds in a similar way to what has happened or will happen elsewhere.

There is no obvious reason why it shouldn't be like this: we belong to the same species and our social dynamics are identical, or at least related, everywhere. Yet in January, looking suspiciously at China, we had the perception that nothing of the sort could happen in Europe. Not on that scale, not like that, not with us. Why not? For unfounded prejudice, the prejudice of elsewhere. And because nobody took seriously the hypothesis that we and China were on the same timeline.

Giordano is talking specifically about Europe. But don't make the same mistake Europe made in misunderstanding the temporal line. This is the most concrete example of learning from what works you can have.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” said Benjamin Franklin. The better questions, then, are “when” and “how.” Using time wisely, to become more resilient, diversified, smarter is the best antidote to panic and fear. It goes without saying, yet it's worth repeating, read trusted sources: They tend to contextualize evidence and time scales more properly.

You're not a number

The focus on “if” and “where” questions are indicative of a love affair with numbers. But numbers without context can tell a dangerous story. In the best of cases, they don't tell us why something is happening so that we can work on the right things. For that, we still need “when” and “how.”

Memes are fun, until they turn dangerous: 1.) Forget to tally the cost of using resources on one thing rather than another; 2.) Overlook the impact of making trade-offs with attention in lost productivity. It's what Cal Newport termed the metric black hole.

If we believed the numbers, many more companies would have prepared for digital transformation, given how digital can shape every aspect of a business and the upside for many industries, in different ways.

It's easy to miscast numbers when it comes to statistics and dashboards alike. There are best practices that might not work at all in your company. It's hard to understand whether something is going to work when you don't try it, or don't fund it properly.

When we finally see or acknowledge it, a problem may already be a crisis. In 2012, the strongest and most destructive Atlantic hurricane to ever hit the United States to that point hit the Eastern states. Hurricane Sandy inflicted nearly $70 billion in damage and put New York City knee-deep in water.

At that time, many companies were left unprepared: People were unable to go to their submerged or declared unusable offices. Some people with a company-issued laptop had not even thought of taking it home.

Company servers were rendered unusable, and even some companies that should have known better did not have policies and processes to address the full extent of their business interruption.

The companies that employed people who thought in terms of contingencies and options, who did carry their laptop home because something could occur to them on the train, or perhaps had more latitude to work as appropriate to the business, had the ability to continue operations.

Soon, the people working from home were able to help set up others with temporary laptops. When certain areas of New York City became stable enough, the same people started informal meetings with colleagues to get everyone up to speed. After the buildings were up and running again, some of these companies made plans to diversify company servers and addressed remote working.

As many have pointed out recently, one positive outcome of CoViD-19 quarantines has been the lower environmental impact#. You're not a number, but when you manage to persuade the right people, or manage to be the right person on the receiving end of persuasion, you can make a big difference.

Understand what is in your control

Are control freaks good planners? I'd be curious to find out. Because preparing for what could happen is the one thing that is in our control. Reacting is much more expensive in terms of impact, even when it's a temporary situation.

Companies that had a plan for what could happen found a way to use technology to their advantage. They didn't let lack of certainty or overconfidence in their abilities get too much in the way. They remember that investment comes before the return, and that it can take time to realize the second. Some things depend on others happening first.

It's worth remembering that we exist in a system of communications and relationships. Each of us is a network of ideas and connections and our very identity depends of others recognizing us. At the micro level, these are our families and friends. At the macro level, they're our companies, institutions, and nations. These relationships influence and shape each other.

The super-person is still subject to the laws of gravity, is made of flesh, and can hit a truckload of yogurt like the rest of us. When we face collective crises like the current one, traveling on the same timeline, it's worth remembering that even the exceptional individual relies on others for a sense of identity, and to get things done.

When you know so much and think you can predict, uncertainty is the biggest risk of all. The best way to hedge that risk is to build resilience through networks of partners, collaborators, independent advisers, and diverse talents in the company. In the culture of “me,” we exist because of “us.”