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Six principles for addressing COVID-19 outbreak

I have led several large organizations, including one in the federal government, and have learned a number of hard lessons about responding to crises. I am distressed that the federal response to a major health emergency does not seem to reflect even the most basic management principles. Here are six things that could dramatically improve America’s response to the coronavirus outbreak:

1. It is what it is. The first priority is to understand what the problem actually is, versus what you want it to be. Talk to the experts and get as much data as you can about the situation today and where you are headed in the future. Hard numbers help avoid “he said/she said” debates. This does not imply that you need only to get the numbers and that decisions make themselves – no seasoned leader believes that. But it does mean that you have the best information at any given moment. You can try hiding from reality, but sooner or later it will catch up with you.

2. Over-communicate the facts. Tell people the truth and tell it often. If you don’t know, say that you don’t know and outline the steps that you are taking to get better information. Even bad news, effectively communicated, can have a positive effect on the listener. One of the worst things that can happen in a crisis is to lose the trust of people – they will be reluctant to accept your recommendations in the future.

3. Be prepared. Understand what you might need and find ways to procure those items. For example, if hospitals think that they will need ventilators, call a number of manufacturers of similar technologies and tell them to immediately shift production to ventilators. Give them simple designs from other manufacturers so that they can start right away. If federal bureaucrats object that this violates procurement law, have the President sign exemptions to those regulations. If you are concerned about fraudulent suppliers, triple the penalties associated with false claims. All of this can be done in one day.

4. Think about the consequences of your actions. At first glance, a decision might seem obvious, but further thought could show that it is actually counterproductive. Limiting travel from other countries that have high infection rates is a good idea. However, jamming thousands of people from virus hot-spots into airports is guaranteed to communicate the virus among them and across the country. Think two, three, or even more moves into the future.

5. Get all the help that you can. Thinking that you are smarter than everyone else is a prescription for disaster. Rarely can one organization, even one as large as the federal government, solve problems on its own. Collaboration between the public and private sector is essential, but so too is collaboration between nations. Listen to what others have learned; don’t repeat their mistakes. Buy products that they may have on hand and even consider inviting some of their experts to help.

6. Look ahead to victory. Even while the United States was embroiled in the Second World War, it was planning what it would do when it achieved victory. Now is the time to think about how we will readjust to a new normal, how we will apply lessons learned in the current crisis, and how we will rebuild economic and social institutions following a traumatic event.

None of this is magic. It is not even inspired leadership. It is nothing more than Management 101. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, our federal government seems challenged to apply these basic principles. We haven’t a moment to lose in changing that.

Stephen Younger, of Los Alamos, recently retired as director of Sandia National Laboratories. He holds a Ph.D. in physics, and has written extensively on national security and other topics.

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