COVID-19 & Leadership

April 20, 2020

IMG 7025 copyMillie 01This blog post is written by Dave Snowden (the Cynefin Centre) and Millie Begovic (UNDP) to launch a critical experiment in learning and understanding the evolving implications of the pandemic – to which we invite your participation. The resulting data will be used to better understand how to globally scale this distributed capture and further generate partnerships for policy work and investment.

We are living through what Dan Hill aptly termed ‘an A/B test on our way of life,’ – worlds as pre (A) and post (B) Corona.  At no other time in human history has there been a mandated containment of over 4 billion people to their homes, with accompanying, and still playing out, socio-economic, political, psychological and other unknown implications. ‘Flattening the curve’ plays out differently in different contexts; some countries have strong institutions, relative trust of their citizens, are able to marry science, pragmatism and context, and have a fiscal space to plug lost income and health. And some countries do not (India’s 21 day lockdown in comparison to the Danish response is a stark example).

On an individual level this translates into a massive diversity of experiences. Through this study we would like to focus on the implications of the current crisis on emerging new practices, and behaviours and values that drive learning, innovation and work to potentially build a new future.

There is no comparative case on a similar scale or scope that we can look to for guidance.  Instead, we are relying on over a decade of experience in practicing complexity science and establishing projects all over the world in Government, business, academia, policy, the development sector, and beyond.

What we often see in a crisis is a lack of sufficient cognitive, political, and experiential diversity in assessing the implications of the crisis, which can undermine our ability to make good decisions. For example, there is often a bias towards well-polished analysis that, by its nature, can only ensue after something has happened. This polished analysis drowns out outliers in the hope of finding significance. On the other hand, this approach can be used to monitor the ebb and flow of data in real-time, outliers are seen as potential signals to explore rather than inconvenient data points to remove, and the raw, unprocessed, and disintermediated data is kept in its original form for as long as possible in order to hold on to its meaning (UNDP’s Regional Innovation Center is diving into capturing exactly this type of data with partners from Governments in Asia Pacific). This framework offers a coherent mechanism to ‘entangle’ stories from different sources (policy makers, citizens) and identify seeds of novel practices and learning as they happen.

Some interesting questions that come out of this line of thinking to consider as we move forward in this endeavour are:

In Terms of Society…

  • What will be the impact of this period on the form of civil society and trust in civil institutions?
  • Learnings from the entanglement: what learnings are hidden in the mesh of the experiences of those making decisions (eg. government employees, civil servants) and those coping with implications (eg. the most vulnerable)?
  • The economic impact is incommensurable as of yet, and these times of crisis and uncertainty offer rare opportunities to revolutionise who we are, and how we act, in the world around us. So, what new experimental concepts – such as gifting – could work to break the rationing of health and education created by the fixation on monetary gain or blockchain? And how can we adopt them?
  • What learnings are taking place so we can prevent, or quickly resolve, the next global crisis we collectively face? With the wider threat of climate change, we need to seize the opportunity to create a more aware and resilient society.
  • What is the evolving role of international institutions (cognisant of the current situation with WHO) in co-ordinating global action and response to global issues? Are there indications of the changing contours of geo-political influences and power?

In Terms of Family and Our Local Communities…

  • How are families coping with the day-to-day reality of confinement, home-schooling and other pressures? What stories do they have to tell?
  • For families of critical workers, what learning opportunities exist that can be captured by family members at the start and end of each shift?
  • Can we engage young people as journal-keepers and journalists in this time of crisis so we can look at the present and future through their eyes?
  • How can we capture the stories of those suffering bereavement without the ability to be with their loved ones or attend funerals?
  • How can we address, prevent, and resolve the surge in domestic violence coming to light as a result of this pandemic?

In Terms of Our Health and Social Care System…

  • How do we create narrative based learning in the field under fire? Both for real-time usage and intervention, and post-event analysis.
  • In a time of crisis, novel, rapid re-purposing of existing tools and capability is essential, but how do we manage that at scale?
  • How do we best understand the ethical implications of triage decisions and their impact on mental health and society as a whole?

In Terms of Remote Working…

  • What is the impact on innovation, learning, and co-creation in the context of massive telecommuting across different sectors?
  • To what extent does the mental and physical health, and productivity, of individuals, suffer as a result of constant online meetings, supervising childrens’ online education, caring for a sick family member, or financially (or otherwise) supporting loved ones who have lost their jobs?
  • What new practices and behaviors emerge out of employees’ coping strategies that might point towards ‘new normals’?
  • Can we engage government workers as observers and reflectors on what is happening now and in identifying innovative ideas for the future?

How Might You Get Involved?

Next 10 days…

We will deploy a rapid daily journal to collect experiences of professionals around the world to begin understanding what learnings are emerging. This might take 5-6 minutes of your time each day.

If you want to take part in this then please register by filling out this form and you will get a full invitation at the end of the week.

Screenshot 2020 04 20 at 11 37 43 copyIn the meantime,  you can download the SenseMaker® app on the iOS App Store or Google Play Store and key in the framework code ResilienceJournal (case sensitive) to get familiar with the SenseMaker® environment.

This is an open system and will not track data by individuals (that is for next week and you will get instructions). The various demographic questions will also be removed in a few days as, upon registration, you will be able to automatically store these details against your account.

If you prefer to use a desktop, laptop, or tablet browser, you can access it here but please note that, unlike the app, photographs and voice files are not possible via web capture.

One of our network members has created a downloadable guide to using the journal, or you can watch our short video tutorial.

In 2 Weeks…

The intention is not to be extractive – but to continually reflect back the emerging patterns and insights to strengthen our collective experience in managing COVID-19 and potentially showcase weak signals of new practices. On the basis of data coming through, we will run an open online call to share what is emerging and source feedback on how to improve and iterate the framework to make it more effective in moving forward.

You will also be invited to take part in two mass sensing opportunities on post-pandemic futures and ethical issues surrounding triage.

To view a list of all our existing programmes, click HERE.  Expect substantial updates to this throughout the week as new activities come online or are available

If you require information on data privacy, you may refer to our Privacy Policy, or email As this is the trial phase of a wider journaling exercise, the option to specify ‘Other Industry’, ‘Other Role’ and ‘Other Sector’ and other multiple-choice questions in an additional text field is currently unavailable.

Related Programmes…

Journal based learning systems are also being created for medical workers, families, and government employees in lockdown. To hear about the Welsh Audit office work here you can listen to the recording here [link awaited]  and use the contact point above to tell us if you are interested.

Banner picture of handwashing by Christine Sandu on Unsplash Material in this application is Copyright © 2020 Cognitive Edge Pte Ltd All Rights Reserved. Protected in part by copyright, patent and trademark and other law

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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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