What The Coronavirus Can Teach Us About Strategy

March 16, 2020 Joe Britto

Reading time: about 3 minutes.


In this blog, I’d like to think about what the coronavirus can teach us about strategy.

As I write this the virus is working its way around the world. The US has banned travel from most of Europe. All non-essential travel to the EU is set to be banned. Spain has declared a state of emergency, and Italy has closed its borders. The WHO is calling Covid-19 a pandemic. Last week, markets tumbled to twelve year lows. There’s a shortage of surgical masks, hand sanitizer, and toilet paper.

 Some Level-Headed Advice

This is a scary time. Flattening the curve means the coronavirus will be with us for some time. We need to wash our hands for at least 20 seconds often, sneeze or cough into our elbows, and self-isolate if we’re sick or exposed to the virus. Precautions are a good idea, panic isn’t. So let’s start with perhaps the best advice I’ve heard about Covid-19. It comes from John Oliver, host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight.

Oliver offered a simple scale to reset the panic. As he put it: “If you’re drinking bleach to protect yourself, calm the fuck down. If you’re licking subway poles because you think nothing can hurt you, don’t do that.” In summary, he says, “Don’t be complacent, and don’t be a fucking idiot.”

And that’s a lesson, I’d go along with. But the coronavirus has more to teach us than that.

A Presidential Misstep

When something upends our strategy it’s easy to blame unforeseen events. “Who could have seen that coming?” the argument might go. Though giving Trump a hard time for the US response to coronavirus is flavour of the month, his administration – and competent or incompetent leaders around the world for that matter – can’t be blamed for the virus. But their responses are under scrutiny. Just like Trump’s decision to shut down the White House National Security Council’s entire global health security unit in 2018. That was a strategic misstep we can all learn from.

Plans and Strategies

To make my point clear, let’s refresh our memories on the difference between a plan and a strategy. People go into business for lots of reasons but the core is to make money. Our plans are how we mean to do that – selling shoes if I’m Nike, or software and devices if I’m Microsoft. Strategy is the ability to flex that plan and navigate the changing business, financial, political – and in this case health – landscape so we can achieve our goal despite obstacles.

Thinking strategically is about being able to see down the road and spot factors that might impinge on our business and pivot now to mitigate them.

The reason why shutting down the global health security unit is relevant to us, is because it teaches us something about strategy. There’s no way to know when or where the next pandemic is coming from, that’s why vigilance matters. And though we’re not all leading countries, the coronavirus can teach us something important about strategy and the mindset that develops it.

The Unprepared Mindset

Think about this: if I develop a strategy based on the landscape of today where does that leave me months, weeks, or years from now?

If you said reacting to events that may knock that strategy of course, I’d agree. The mindset that leaves itself open to that is what I call the unprepared mindset. And just like the term suggests, the unprepared mindset responds to situations because it has no way of seeing knock-backs coming. It’s complacent because it builds its strategy on a linear worldview – that things build and move forward in fairly predictable ways.

Like all worldviews, it collapses when it collides with the world that is. And all that takes is one event it didn’t see coming.

Seeing the “Unobvious”

Mitigating things we can see is obvious. What I mean by that is, if I can see a problem brewing on the horizon, then taking steps to address it now isn’t brilliant it just makes sense.

But what about mitigating problems we can’t see? That’s what the coronavirus can teach us. After the Ebola outbreak, the Obama administration set up the global health security unit to spot, track, and mitigate the effects of future pandemics.

It wasn’t obvious when the next one would happen. But that’s the point: it’s about looking out for something we can’t see now.

How does that relate to us? Because what the Obama administration did was bake-in a process to look for things that aren’t obvious.

Reflexive Strategies

And that’s what we can learn when we develop strategies. What the coronavirus can teach us about strategy is this: build in a process that looks at the strategy and evaluates its effectiveness.

It’s what I call a self-reflexive strategy because as part of its implementation process, there’s a mechanism that requires us to look at the strategy and see what may have changed on the landscape ahead of us. It’s a built in inflection point that takes stock of where it’s at and looks at any new obstacles that may prevent it going where it needs to.

And that inflection point is an opportunity for a strategic pivot.

Creating a Self-Reflexive Strategy

To create that level of responsiveness try these three steps when you next develop your strategy:

  1. Set inflection points in your implementation at regular intervals – every six months depending on your strategic goals
  2. At these points actively seek out factors on the business landscape that may derail your strategy
  3. Refine your strategy as needed to accommodate the factors you see

If that sounds simple, it’s because it is. The tough part is being willing to take those three steps.

The biggest roadblock is our certainty that we have the right strategy in the first place. It’s certainty that allows us to slip into an unprepared mindset. And if you’re not sure where that leads, take a look at how most world leaders are handling the latest pandemic.


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