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Complexity: Pandemic Lessons About Emergence & Ambiguity

<strong>Complexity:</strong>  Pandemic Lessons About <strong>Emergence & Ambiguity</strong>

Writing my book on complexity and chaos in business I’ve been covering the topic of emergence — an issue of tremendous importance — and wanted to share some of that writing.

No event in modern history encapsulates the challenges of emergence quite like this pandemic. The mere arrival of Covid19 was an emergent event as we watched to see IF it would appear and, if it did, how it would affect us. Over time, I’ve been struck that nearly every important issue amid a pandemic is emergent. Would it be serious? What would tell us how serious? What steps could be taken to keep ourselves safe? Would economic damage be disastrous? How long would it take for a vaccine to be created? How well would the vaccine protect society?

At the same time, the pandemic has made it clear that society and most businesses handle emergent realities poorly. I suspect this has been true throughout history. Yet it is was incredibly sad to see so clearly, through the lens of complexity, those areas where emergence was so critical only to find society — public, pundits, the press, government, politicians, and businesses — unable to become comfortable waiting for emergence.

Our emergence didn’t simply start with waiting for answers to emerge. We had to wait for the right questions to emerge. That meant our doubts had to first coalesce into those questions. After that, Answers could begin to emerge but the answers were never absolute and clear. It took time for emergent answers to become accepted ones. Then, too, each answer seemed only to raise additional questions where answers could only emerge.

While I will not dig more deeply into one of the most unusual aspects of this process, amid the life-threatening seriousness of Covid19 came a surprise, worldwide emergent reality:  a politically motivated minority opposed steps which would minimize the impact of the pandemic. We must leave this issue for later discussion.

What IS Emergence?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary tells us that “to emerge” means:

  1. to become manifest : become known
  2. to rise from or as if from an enveloping fluid : come out into view
  3. to come into being through evolution

Number two is quite fun — to rise from the deep, arise out of the water. Water is quite often connected in mythologies to the seeking of wisdom and insight. No surprise that history knows much about complex behaviors at work.

With this basis, let’s look at a set of truths which have emerged through the past 2 years.

Emergent Truth #1: Concluding it’s a Pandemic

While the damage Covid19 has brought is clear, it is important to remember how it arrived. We heard rumors of rumors — but initially those rumors didn’t raise a serious question of “is this a Pandemic” — that came later. Here’s some of what I saw:

Late in 2019, rumors of a virus outbreak in China hit worldwide press and social media. The public had become somewhat immune to these rumors as the press love a good headline and they’d predicted possible catastrophe from viruses since 2000. None of those catastrophes emerged. So we knew something was clearly happening in China but it was hard to know what to think. As citizens, we had to let the issue emerge in 2020 before we would know if it was a serious threat.

The last weekend of February my son and I flew to Los Angeles to do some business, visit friends, go to museums, and hear the LA Philharmonic perform Dvorak’s New World Symphony. My son was concerned because we knew one individual had recently died from Covid in Oregon’s neighbor — Washington State. At Sam’s wise suggestion, we used hand sanitizer often and were careful to avoid crowds when we could.

Flying to Portland on March 1st, one woman on my airplane was in full pandemic regalia — masked, gloved, and otherwise quite fully covered. It was shocking. In retrospect, that was the last weekend we could naïvely hope there might not be a crisis. Ten days later I informed my classes they would take the final exam online to prevent the spread of Covid and I have only taught by video in the 16 months since.

Unfortunately, press, pundits, and self-appointed experts (usually paid by the press) would not discuss the importance of allowing reality to emerge. In addition to their usual panic inducing reporting, the US press regularly and loudly shouted bad information through TV, web sites, and social media. From what I understand, this mis-guided desire to declare that which had not yet emerged was a problem around the world. There seem to be some in the press who live to announce the arrival of the Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse. Others in the press minimized the pandemic claiming it was a crisis manufactured for political reasons, barely worse than annual flu season.

Millions of worldwide deaths later, societies would have benefitted had the press respected the emergent nature of the crisis.

Emergent Truth #2:  Realizing It Won’t Go Away Quickly

When my university told us to all begin teaching remotely on April 1, 2020 they also suggested that the decision would be reviewed in 4 weeks. How naive we were in those early days. Their process, though, was wise and respected the emergent nature of what we faced. Now far more informed, it can be hard to recall how little we knew at a point in time in the past. It is possible, though unlikely, that we might have quickly suppressed the virus as happened with SARS.

We didn’t. But, even in April 2020, we didn’t really know what the future might look like alongside Covid19. What eventually emerged appears to me to suggest it will be with us for a long time and that we will continue to get better at containing and treating it. The vaccines are a huge step forward. And, as with other diseases, periodic booster shots throughout our lives are a small price to pay for the safety they bring.

Some of this emergence was less about information and understanding emerging. Far more of it was emergence of acceptance — letting the reality sink in that this is a long term fight.

Emergent Truth #3:  Existing Measurements Aren’t Sufficient; New Measurements Take Time

From early on, epidemiologists helped us understand that questions to ask. We want to know two fundamental truths:

  • The virulence of the disease (how easy will it pass along?)
  • The likelihood of death for anyone who became sick with Covid-19 (how fatal is it?)

These are simple to state but turn out to be very difficult to measure. In the earliest months, we ONLY knew counts of deaths which had been attributed to Covid.

But we must not forget that in the early months there were no valid and reliable tests. Those had to be developed. Some of the first tests were of questionable accuracy. Eventually tests became available. But those only told us the percentage of positive tests among those who were tested. They did not speak to the penetration of the disease into the population.

A more difficult reality also emerged:  The measurement would always be imperfect. Not all who had Covid were tested. Not all who died from Covid were recorded as such. Worse, we did not have a basis from which to estimate these numbers. The US public and press struggled badly without “hard numbers.”

Common sense suggests what we want to know is absolutely countable. With omniscience, I suppose we could know the number who are sick and number of those who die. Except, we aren’t omniscient. It wasn’t until late 2020 that consensus built around the broad numbers which could satisfy most observers. (There are always those who refuse to accept anything but perfectly precise data. They struggle badly with emergent realities.)

Emergent Truth #4: Actions which Prevent Transmission and Death also Make Data Imperfect

We could not wait for perfect data before trying to restrict the virus’ spread and severity. In truth, there will never be perfect data about Covid19. Never.

Do we know how numbers changed with growing numbers of individuals wearing masks? No. As we were better able to detect and treat Covid19, what impact did that have on death rates? We don’t know. Both steps forward (as well as many more) ALSO muddied up our fundamental numbers.

Business needs to pay attention. While we like to demand perfect test numbers, it is rare that business is so simple that we can test in unadulterated situations. Only large volume A/B tests (impossible in many important situations) have the statistical reliability to wash out these confuddling factors. In business, we must somehow trust that a relatively accurate consensus of impact will emerge and that we usually can’t wait for it before taking more action.

The idea that business can be run based on data is a myth.

Emergent Truth #5:  Realizing Economists Were Wrong — Quite Clueless

It seems we can always find an economist willing to answer a question — whether there’s a valid answer or not is a whole different issue.

This was a serious problem in the pandemic. Societies feared the economic impact of Covid-19 as well as the impact of measures to contain the virus. So they turned to economists and the economists answered, but shouldn’t. We generally heard dire warnings. In the US it was suggested we faced economic struggle as deep as that of the Great Depression of 1929. With my base in complexity, this one in particular seemed incredibly off-base — it instantly triggered red flags. Predictions in an emergent situation are highly unstable due to extreme sensitivity to initial conditions and initial assumptions (I retain important concern about climate change predictions for the same reason).

These dire economists glossed over dramatic change in a very key initial condition when comparing the Pandemic with the Great Depression. In 1929 demand for goods was quickly dropping and entering a death spiral but that wasn’t happening in the pandemic. After several months it became clear that demand stayed quite solid — it increased for some important goods (like home office equipment) while it fell for others (like restaurant supplies).

Why did economists issue dire predictions? Perhaps unwise to complexity they retained their faith in the laws of economics — a grave mistake in an emerging situation.

Don’t misunderstand my thought here. The effects on the economy have been mixed. Some companies had banner 2020’s because the lock downs dramatically reduced costs for maintaining office space, travel, and entertainment. Others suffered badly as customers stopped buying in their stores or the need for their goods (non-consumer toilet paper for example) dropped off a cliff. Net out, though, we don’t really know how to articulate the economic reality — yet. That is probably still a few more years in the future.

Emergent Truth #6:  Lies are Invented Quickly; The Truth Emerges Slowly 

Researchers have a vested interest in “selling” the idea their work is important. Fortunately, there are many smart researchers who keep themselves honest by staying mostly away from the temptation of headline opportunities. Unfortunately, some don’t.

In the pandemic, we saw the press accept what researchers claimed at face value. Early on, the research was false yet, as suggested by Mark Twain, the message circled the earth 100 times before the truth had time to emerge. We also saw that once the truth emerged, there were times it couldn’t overcome the power of the lie. This was a serious problem in the opening months of the pandemic.

I recall several highly flawed studies out of Stanford. In one, volunteers were tested for Covid and infection rates were published as if the rate among volunteers was projectable to the broad population of the area. It was an absurd and very basic mistake (research 101 level mistake). They advertised for participants in the study by promising free Covid tests. This ensures that most people in the study will have reasons to fear they might be sick — perhaps they had to keep working or had attended a party or had crossed paths with a relative who had Covid.

This study found exactly what its fundamental design assured — very high infection rates. The press projected it to the total population which made for great, shocking, and somewhat positive headlines suggesting death rates were far lower than had been expected. Those headlines were entirely, and knowably, wrong.

Emergent Truth #7:  Covid19 is Transmitted in Aerosols

Early pronouncements by the disease establishment (whatever that is) focused on Covid19 spreading through contact. I suspect this idea spread quickly because of the large number of bacteria researchers who make their money looking at spread by contact. To cash in on the topic of Covid19, they published useless studies like “how long does the virus live on a surface.” Shouted with banner headlines, these wrong directions led to wasted efforts with constant cleaning.

After all, what emerged was that spreading by surface contact was a lie. Covid19 is transmitted by aerosols we breathe in. We should have spent our time improving airflow instead of disinfecting surfaces.

Emergent Truth #8:  Long Covid

While we were focused on infection rates and death rates, rumors began to appear of a serious lingering of symptoms long after the initial disease had run its course. I have a friend in his 30s who fought Covid in March of 2020 and is still, here in September 2021, struggling with serious symptoms. Even at this point, though, we do not still have a handle on what is happening in the human body in these cases. Where the death rate from Covid19 seems to be somewhere around 1.5% of those infected, it appears that 5 to 10% have lingering symptoms.

Emergent Truth #9:  Disasters are Disorderly — and Require Good Instincts

It seems I shouldn’t need to say this. But throughout our living through Covid19 there has been an expectation that it could be fought in neat and tidy ways. Certainly, in both the US and the UK, political leadership through 2020 did everything it could to mishandle announcements and policies for responding to Covid19. Yet, no matter who was in office, there is always messiness when complexity comes into play.

I’ve just finished Midnight in Chernobyl about the nuclear disaster. In any emergent situation (as Chernobyl was as well), steps must be taken before there is “full understanding.” It was interesting to read post-analysis indicating how many parts of the Chernobyl disaster response were not as effective as hoped.

War is also an emergent event. Historian Ian Toll’s superb history of WWII in the Pacific relates how Husband Kimmel, commander of Pearl Harbor when it was attacked, he was scapegoated for the disaster. Toll notes that Nimitz, who relieved Kimmel, struggled because he understood Kimmel was chosen to be a public scapegoat for an unavoidable disaster. Many things which happen which cannot be predicted or are so unlikely that the waste of preparing for them is not justified.

In an emergent disaster, then, we are in a position where we must make difficult judgement calls. Sometimes waiting a week for a good answer to emerge will save a very large number of lives. At other times, acting quickly on hunches will save more lives. We can’t know which with certainty — and we can’t rely on management by data to tell us the answers. No emergent catastrophe can be managed with only neat, clean actions. That said, we need press and politicians to learn about emergence in order to learn the appropriate combination of caution and firm action it teaches.

Concluding Truth:  Success Amid Emergence Requires Comfort with Ambiguity

As a closing thought, succeeding in the face of emergent events requires that we be able to live in situations which are ambiguous. How else can we describe the time between knowing the question we want answered and the time, often months or years later, when an answer to the question becomes clear.

Often the most important answer when we face emergence in business is “I don’t know” — at least when offered by someone smart and savvy and not as an excuse for laxity. I have found that admitting we don’t know seems to opens our minds in a way where we find better answers and find them more quickly.

Despite this, businesses prefer those who are naively confident instead of those who accurately see and accept ambiguity. It can be near certain political death for a senior manager to admit they don’t know an answer if their enemies are allowed to pounce on these statements to claim incompetence. This is a shame. The demand for articulated clarity is created by people desperate to avoid ambiguities. No one is more competent than the executive who accurately perceives, and openly discusses, ambiguity.

So learn to sit with ambiguity — quietly letting it exist without demanding that it give up answers. One saying suggests that “in contradiction is the truth” and a specific contradiction worth considering is TS Eliot’s “in the end is the beginning.” To develop my own skills with ambiguity, I now read poetry with regularity because, as Billy Collins observes “[P]oetry is … the home of ambiguity, ambivalence and uncertainty.”

Sometimes only the silence of ambiguity offers room to detect emerging truth.

©2021 Doug Garnett — All Rights Reserved


Through my company, Protonik LLC, I consult with companies as they design and bring to market new and innovative products. I am currently writing a book exploring the value of complexity science for understanding business. Protonik also produces marketing materials including documentaries, websites, and blogs. As an adjunct instructor at Portland State University I teach marketing, consumer behavior, and advertising.

You can read more about these services and my unusual background (math, aerospace, supercomputers, consumer goods & national TV ads) at www.Protonik.net. 

Categories:   Business and Strategy, Complexity in Business

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