Leaders doing their best or ‘Morons*’? Strategy lessons from The Covid Inquiry

Covid Inquiry2
Whatever your personal opinion on the Government's handling of the Covid pandemic, we can learn a lot from the Inquiry on the importance of aligning on the strategy, before taking action.

What the Covid Inquiry teaches us about the importance of strategy before plans

If you have been following the UK Covid Inquiry, you may be feeling angry or dismayed.  The testimonies show that there were a multitude of mistakes, misunderstandings, and mistruths.

Was this inevitable or avoidable?

In answering this question, we can learn a lot from the Inquiry – and not just a new vocabulary of insults courtesy of Mr Cummings!   

Handling the Covid-19 pandemic was a tough ask for any Government.  Even with our collective PhDs in hindsight, there was never going to be a perfect solution.  There was always going to be a tension between protection vs freedom, lives vs livelihoods.  There was enormous pressure, ever-changing and ambiguous information, opposing and vocal opinions, and no time to debate it all.

So, you might say the situation was inevitable or at least understandable. Or you may listen to the accusations of blame, hypocrisy, and egos, and see it as inexcusable. 

Putting aside personal opinions on the individuals concerned, I believe this Inquiry is a masterclass on the importance of strategy (intent) before plans (what to do and when).   Or rather a case study in what goes wrong when you act before you are agreed on what you are trying to do and why.

There is no such thing as a perfect strategy or plan, but the two should, at least, match.  

In this blog I explore three fundamental areas of strategy where they appear to have struggled with that match.  

Thankfully, most of us won’t have to take decisions that affect the entire nation in a pandemic, but I hope they will be valuable learnings for anyone building a strategy and plan.

Ok so let’s get straight into it. What are those three big things that you need everyone aligned on before you act?

  1. Facts: what do we know? What don’t we know?
  2. What do we believe in? What do we value?
  3. What are we trying to achieve?

When building a strategy, a great place to start is with what you know and what you don’t know. If you are working in a team or with a group of stakeholders, aligning people behind one set of facts is essential.  Sounds easy right?

To do this well, takes honesty and objectivity.  It means experts having to admit they don’t know all the answers, leaders having to listen and share unpopular truths. 

It requires everyone to know what data they need to make decisions.  It requires them to understand the data they are looking at; to interpret it in the right way and evaluate it objectively to draw information.

The Inquiry suggests this was problematic for the Government and mistakes were made.  Whether it was due to the volatility, ambiguity, urgency, and pressure of the situation or the competency of the individuals involved is up for discussion.

Decision makers did not appear to see, or admit to seeing, the same data at the same time.  They struggled to understand how to interpret it.  More dangerously, they made assumptions rather than checking, for example there was an underestimation of risk by a factor of 100 when a fraction was misunderstood as a percentage.

Trying to get accurate and verifiable data on an evolving situation cannot have been easy. The explosion of alternative ‘facts’ and conspiracy theories on social media did not help either.  

They were victims, as most of us are, to confirmation bias – when we look for data that supports our view and reject that which does not.  Listening to the interviews, it was clear that even if they saw the same data, their views and responses were different.  

What can we all do? If you are building a strategy, getting good view of your current situation can help shape your direction.   If you have gaps in your knowledge then you may be able to find out. But if you don’t have the means to do so, be honest with each other on where things fit:

  1. Facts you can back up with evidence
  2. Assumptions you are confident in, using other information/experience
  3. Complete guesses!

Getting an outside view or at least playing devil’s advocate with each other, can help you be more objective.

A commonly neglected area of strategy is beliefs and values.  So often, this is seen as the fluffy exercise to create a nice infographic for your employees to forget about.  However, if done early, it is crucial to shaping your decisions.

In the case of the pandemic, there were some very horrible decisions that had to be taken. The decision makers and influencers struggled on those decisions because they were not aligned on their beliefs and values.

Sometimes, it can be helpful to draw people’s views out by presenting two extreme arguments.  The reality maybe somewhere in between, but by forcing a binary view, you get clear prioritisation. Some examples are below:  

It’s not that serious, it is just the fluORThis is a major threat, a catastrophe
Every life is sacred: the majority must make sacrifices to protect the vulnerable  ORAs many lives must be saved as possible: we must sacrifice the vulnerable to protect the majority
Covid takes precedence over everything – it is an urgent life or death issue  ORCovid is a short term issue that cannot take precedence over the long term economic health of the country.
Freedom is our core value: people must be free to make their own choices  ORProtection is our core value:  we must protect the public even at the expense of their freedom
UK citizens are our priorityORWe must think globally

Choosing the beliefs and values for your organisation’s strategy will have implications. So, test them out before agreeing to see how committed you are behind them.  

When it comes to setting your goals, and objectives, this is where that alignment on facts, beliefs and values comes to play.

The Government employed multiple tools at different times to deal with the pandemic. In the early stages it was public education (Hands-Face-Space) but carry on almost as normal; we then moved into legal mandates on mask wearing, social distancing, lockdowns, testing and isolation and then onto vaccines. In the middle we were told to ‘eat out to help out’.  The approaches were dependent on what the Government was trying to achieve.  

The trouble was the objectives were not always clear. They kept changing and not everyone in power had the same viewpoint.

Were we trying to eradicate the virus? Slow the spread? Create herd immunity? Protect the vulnerable? Protect health? Protect the NHS? Protect the Economy? Minimise disruption? Learn to live with it?

There are clear overlaps and differences between each one of those. This conflict maybe why we changed tack part way through and started eating our way to freedom, somehow oblivious to another impending lockdown.

Why were we trying to do these things? Were we (a) trying to prevent premature death or chronic illness from Covid only, or (b) trying to prevent premature death or chronic illness from anything?     If the number one priority was Covid, then you accept that cancer care, and other conditions took a back seat in the short term. If it was b) then tougher decisions were needed on resource allocation.

Whatever field you work in, there is never a perfect strategy. But what you do has to match with what you are trying to achieve. The collars and cuffs need to match!  So ensure that you and your team members have the same clear view.

I will wait until 2024 for the Inquiry to draw its conclusions. In the meantime, my recommendation for whatever strategy you are building is:

  • Get together, agree what you know, what you don’t know;
  • Thrash out what you believe and value, push to extremes to give you a guide on how to prioritise.
  • Agree what you are trying to achieve, keep saying ‘why’ to get the bigger picture


Good luck!

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