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Mar 9, 2020

The virus and communications

Humans are intelligent, restless beings. They have a hard time dealing with uncertainty. Their minds keep working to anticipate and solve a problem. Those who work for a large organization like a university expect a plenty of information from their leadership. People want to make sure someone is working on some plans, AND being intelligent, they want to help.

However, if you are in the leadership, being completely transparent is actually much harder than you think. With the COVID-19, we are dealing with literally a dozen scenarios, each with a different implications. For example, campus closure for up to two weeks is dramatically different than closure for the rest of the semester. Add to that various scenarios of partial closures, the unknown recommendations from various health and government bodies, and the System. Let’s assume you plan for more likely scenarios. Once you made your plan public, your people will think that this is a done deal, and only a matter of time before it is implemented. Detailed plans takes on the power of self-fulfilling prophecies.

In organizations, planning creates reality; it does not just anticipates it. Detailed plans will add panicky reactions to the mix, for people will act as if the plan is going to be fulfilled. For example, a student may stop coming to class, figuring the campus is going to close soon anyway. In reality, no one knows if it will. We cannot even estimate the probability. One can provoke a whole scale panic by over-communicating contingency plans. It is VERY difficult to communicate that a contingency plan is not a plan of actions. Consequences of a panic tend to outweigh the consequences of the epidemic.

Here is another limitation: the contingency plan will be always different than the actual implementation plan, because assumptions will change. So, if you release a contingency plan too early and then, maybe just a couple of days later, publish another, slightly different one, it will confuse the hell out of people. Which one to follow?

Imagine you tell students in class, yes, the campus may close and we may go online. OK, how are we going to do this assignment? That assignments? What will there be the attendance policy? Where do I go if I have slow internet at home? See, your students will take the scenario as a reality. But do you want to spend a lot of time planning for something that may or may not happen? Probably not, you will tell them: will let you know when and if we get there. It is the same with the University and its faculty and staff. There is the Cabinet, they consult daily with the Senate Executive Committee, and others as needed. I am not anxious to know what they will come up with if we get to the point of higher incident epidemic. It may or may not be perfect, but it will be better than whatever I can come up from my more limited vintage point within the organization. Instead of worrying, I should spend more time thinking of possible school and other agency closures, should they continue. That is a potential problem for our College mostly.

Some confidentiality in planning is absolutely necessary, however most people don’t like it. They start suspecting the leadership is not doing its job. So they make their own decisions about their own classes and units, according to the information available to them. Yet as I just described, the planning information cannot always be shared widely. Acceptance of benevolent ignorance is a sign of wisdom. However, broad areas of preparedness, can be and are shared. For example, thinking of transitioning a course online may not be a bad idea, for it may fit many other emergency situations. Most universities have robust infrastructure in place for online teaching, and it is the most reasonable way of addressing longer kinds of closures or similar disruptions. Thinking about the alternative universe of fully online teaching in broad strokes would be a time well spent.

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