Strategic thinking for the post-Covid-19 world

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on May 19, 2020. An image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.

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When the world rises from Covid-19’s fever, a once-discarded strategic imperative will rise again. It’ll cross disciplines, privilege risk mitigation, explicitly acknowledge uncertainty, and it’ll come from an unlikely source in former US Vice President Dick Cheney.

During the Iraq War, it came to light that Vice President Dick Cheney operated on what he called the “One Percent Doctrine.” According to journalist Ron Suskind, this was the idea that “if there was even a 1 percent chance of terrorists getting a weapon of mass destruction…the United States must now act as if it were a certainty.”

This view suffered for political reasons. It’s also taken heat in policy circles. To be sure, there’s a powerful counterpunch which argues policy shouldn’t be dictated by extreme cases.

Strategy’s different. If strategy is an orientation towards success in some competition, then, of course, it shouldn’t be led by the extremes. But strategy should always account for world- or life-altering scenarios. That’s what makes Cheney’s insight so helpful in thinking through Covid-19. The One Percent Doctrine is a reminder to hedge against such dangerous outliers to the extent we’re able, while we’re still able.

Why didn’t we for Covid-19? A major global pandemic was foreseen and described by many in just the past few years. The problem is not that we didn’t know about the possibility of a global pandemic. It’s that far too few acted on that knowledge to meaningfully hedge against its arrival.

Businesses and governments just kept complacently piling on debt. Organizations kept designing for perfect efficiency and not for desperate survival.

Social psychologists might diagnose this as widespread “normalcy bias.” Essentially, thinking that the world’s tomorrow will always look like today but better, forever.

Shockingly, that normalcy bias can still be seen in every organization focused solely on putting out the fire so “everything can go back to normal.” Many leaders are still in the Great Daze, frozen in the blaze before their eyes, wishing it would all just go away so the pre-Covid-19 routine can resume.

But what happens when everything gets disrupted? When everyone’s lost in some way, when all missed the inbound threat?

This will leave a permanent stain on strategists’ thinking in every part of the globe. Covid-19 isn’t something you live through. Covid-19 is something you live with, sadly, long after the last body is buried. The most common response will be to believe more deeply in uncertainty, and most importantly, to act accordingly.

Much like those who lived through the Great Depression paid cash for the rest of their lives, and kept a little stuffed in the mattress, strategists’ will learn to heed warnings of vicious consequences and hold back some reserve quantity for another Covid-19-like mushroom-cloud-that-never-leaves.

Because we’re recognizing now that we all operate with blind spots, like viewing an iceberg from above. No matter how much is exposed, there’s still something submerged that matters. And there are plenty more icebergs with potential Covid-19-like impacts. War’s not gone and nukes still exist; the climate’s climbing and an asteroid strike might actually happen; dysfunctional economics loom, on the order of the Great Financial Crisis of 2008; and out-of-control technology or scientific experiments that run rampant with devastating consequences may yet jump a test tube and out into humanity. As Toby Ord recently put it, “we have the power to destroy ourselves without the wisdom to ensure that we don’t.”

The One Percent Doctrine is a mindset that accounts with proportional action for low-probability, high-consequence problems that threaten to capsize everything. It counsels resilience, the ability to survive under supreme duress, to withstand more than competitors. If everyone’s built to weather a 10-year or 100-year storm, then this thinking builds for the 1,000-year storm. And in an age when Houston saw 3 “500-year” floods in 3 years, it seems all the more prudent to stress test a strategy to the fourth digit (and perhaps beyond).

At times, certain strategies dominate elite thinking. Think “containment” and “Mutually Assured Destruction” in Cold War geopolitics, or Amazon’s “Day One” mindset and Facebook’s “move fast and break things” mantra in modern American business.

No matter the industry or organization, the One Percent Doctrine should push to the front of strategists’ minds. Like facemasks and handwashing, good strategic hygiene may be uncomfortable at first, but we know they save lives and livelihoods in the longer run.

 

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