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How do you manage improbable events in an unstable and chaotic situation? How do you improvise? How do you take into account restrictions that are complementary and contradictory at the same time? For example, how do you keep people and the economy healthy in the case of an epidemic that continues to mutate?

Observing the way in which governments confronted the Covid-19 crisis, two professors, Patrick Lê from NEOMA Business School and Camille Pradies from EDHEC, wrote the article Sailing through the storm: Improvising paradox navigation during a pandemic. They elaborate on a few major lessons.

When improbable events arise, when a situation becomes unstable, decision-makers encounter three main problems.

1/ The fog of uncertainty

In this fog of uncertainty, you will find, for example, the enemy’s movements that are impossible to predict, unknown weather conditions beyond a ten-day forecast, the mutation of a virus, etc. ‘Worse is when we don’t recognise that we’re in the fog. We don’t know that the enemy’s army is moving, that the virus is propagating, etc.’, Professor Patrick Lê said. ‘It’s a blind spot’.

2/ The turning point

A consequence of this fog is the turning point. It’s an abrupt swerve in trajectory that we make when we see an obstacle at the last second. It’s a quick change of course. During the Covid-19 crisis, governments had to make several rather sudden tacks. When they announced, for example, the opening of the theatres on Monday and then their closure on Thursday.

3/ Chaotic learning

‘Learning by doing’ is typically slower and more chaotic. ‘In the case of the Covid-19 crisis, it was impossible to learn from the experiences of other countries that had such differences in their social, economic and cultural situations’, Patrick Lê said. It was impossible to apply China’s measures in France. ‘In Europe, all the countries were improvising at the same time. We could not take any lessons from our neighbours’, said the NEOMA Business School professor. ‘And we repeated the same errors until we became more prudent and humble. We put in place partial lockdowns, and the fluctuations between opposing strategies (like complete lockdowns or complete re-openings) were not as drastic’.

To confront these difficulties, the two researchers, Patrick Lê and Camille Pradies, have elaborated a few important rules to take control of these extreme crises.

1/A multi-disciplinary team to detect weak signals

Weak signals are by definition small manifestations that appear harmless or far off, but they foreshadow a major event. They can come from anywhere, such as health, social, economic, technological, geopolitical or climate-based origins. Only a team made up of diverse experts is capable of perceiving all the warning signs however minimal. ‘In a globalised world, things can happen rather quickly’, Patrick Lê said. ‘The collapse of Silicon Valley Bank in March 2023 for example could have repercussions in Europe’.

2/ Develop a paradoxical mindset

‘A paradoxical mindset involves understanding that things that appear to be contradictory can be reconciled. It’s a way of saying that we can be on both sides of the fence’, the NEOMA BS professor said. This requires decision-makers to display creativity and adaptability for specific cases.

It is necessary to predict crises and have plans. We have plans in case of war, nuclear accidents, pandemics, etc. but we will need to adapt them to unique situations. In a rapidly evolving context, a strong ability to improvise is needed.

Such results are applied to both improbable and serious events as well as more ordinary crises. ‘Their scope of application is large’, the two writers said. ‘Contemporary life contains instability, crises and upheavals’.


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