The Right Time to Take Action?

Photo: CDC/Dr. Fred Murphy

I am not an epidemiologist; I don’t know what the best response to the COVID-19 epidemic would be. This has not stopped me sharing my opinions just like so many other academics and generally smart people, who are usually just as under-qualified to analyze epidemics as I am.

However, as a management scholar who has also ran businesses I know something about decision making. And, it strikes me that many smart ideas on how to deal with the epidemic ignore the fact that decisions (that is, the actions that they unleash) are often effective only during a specific time window with respect to an escalating situation. For instance,

…let us assume that you are driving a car and you see a truck coming toward you and is about to crash into you. What do you do? You decide to turn the steering wheel and consequently end up in a ditch — not a great outcome but at least you are not dead. You can go home and found a startup developing the smartest ever collision avoidance system to keep you safe and make lots of money. However, if you decide to invent the collision avoidance system when the truck is about to hit you, you probably end up dead.

The point is simple: a decision when to take an action can be just as important as the action that is taken. This is not to say that fast is necessarily better — postponing a decision to a later stage when you are quite possibly better informed makes sense as long as the window of opportunity is still open. To this end, I suggest a simple scheme to differentiate between different timescales and actions they allow, which could help us be smarter about the ideas we shoot around.

  1. Immediate tactical situation. We do what we can with current means as quickly as we can.
  2. Medium-term management of the current epidemic. We develop and test new solutions to contain the epidemic, while using whatever existing means we have at the same time.
  3. Strategic response. We make sure that we are in a better tactical position when the next epidemic happens.

The scheme is sketchy and is intended merely to make the following point: your solution must consider the time window when it can be expected to be effective. Otherwise, it smells of besserwisserism.




Management scholar, entrepreneur and thinker writing about academic knowledge production —

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Aleksi Aaltonen

Aleksi Aaltonen

Management scholar, entrepreneur and thinker writing about academic knowledge production —

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