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Gleb Tsipursky

Health Care

The One Huge Mistake Quality Professionals Make in Preparing for Covid-19

Businesses need to think pessimistically in order to survive

Published: Wednesday, March 25, 2020 - 11:03

The Covid-19 coronavirus has developed into a widespread pandemic. With growing outbreaks of diagnosed cases in all 50 states, and vastly larger numbers of undiagnosed cases, there’s serious cause for concern. Yet quality professionals who follow the official advice on Covid-19 coronavirus prep could be hurting themselves and their organizations.

Current Covid-19 preparation guidance

Mainstream media, following official health organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have published tons of articles on how to prepare for the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic for companies.

It seems to make common sense:
• Cross-train employees in case some get sick
• Prepare for event cancellations
• Encourage sick employees to stay home
• Perform additional cleaning
• Make a disease outbreak response plan in case there’s an outbreak in your area

In other words, all of these preparations are for disruptions that might last for a couple of weeks, at most, resulting from a local outbreak.

Covid-19: The facts and possibilities

While it seems reasonable and fits our intuitions, is it really good advice? Let’s consider the facts about Covid-19:
• Covid -19 is highly contagious, particularly in the early part of infection, as well as after people appear to recover.
• It’s much more deadly than the seasonal flu, especially for older people.
• We won’t have a vaccine until mid- to late 2021 if things go perfectly. If we’re moderately unlucky, the Covid-19 vaccine will be only as effective as current flu vaccines, reducing the chance of illness by 50 percent.
• If we’re very lucky, the virus will burn out by the end of the year; with moderate luck, it will be a seasonal affliction and come back like the flu every year; with somewhat worse luck, it will just keep going, unaffected by seasons.

With that in mind, let’s reassess the Covid-19 preparation guidance.

The current guidance assumes a highly optimistic scenario, where we get very lucky. That’s not good advice, at all. We need to prepare for a moderately pessimistic scenario if we want to protect quality in our organizations.

Our brains make us underprepared for major disruptions

We all suffer from judgment errors that researchers in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics like myself call cognitive biases. These mental blind spots result from a combination of our evolutionary background and specific structural features in how our brains are wired.

Our brain’s main way of dealing with threats is the fight-or-flight response. A great fit for the kind of short-term, intense risks we faced as hunter-gatherers, the fight-or-flight response is terrible at defending us from major disruptions caused by the slow-moving train wrecks we face in the modern environment, such as the Covid-19 pandemic.

More specifically, we need to watch out for three cognitive biases.

1. The normalcy bias causes our brains to assume things will keep going as they have been—normally—and evaluate the near-term future based on our short-term past experience. As a result, we underestimate drastically both the likelihood of a serious disruption occurring and the impact of one if it does occur.
2.When we make plans, we naturally believe that the future will go according to plan. That wrong-headed mental blind spot, the planning fallacy, results in us not preparing for contingencies and problems, both predictable and unknown.
3. Last but not least, we suffer from the tendency to prioritize the short term, and undercount the importance of medium- and long-term outcomes. Known as hyperbolic discounting, this cognitive bias is especially bad for evaluating the potential long-term impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It’s inherently uncomfortable to prepare for the realistic pessimist scenario. That feeling of discomfort happens when we go against our gut reactions, which is what research shows is needed for us to defeat these mental blind spots in our businesses and careers. 

Preparing for the realistic pessimistic scenario in quality

Envision a future where Covid-19 isn’t eradicated but keeps on going. Let’s say it becomes like the flu, a seasonal affliction that comes every September and lasts through March, with a weakly effective vaccine that decreases the likelihood of infection by 50 percent.

To prepare for this moderately unlucky scenario, you need to make major changes to the way you do business, not simply make emergency plans:
• The most important changes will be in human-to-human contact. Does your business model rely on it? Explore creative ways of changing your business model to be more virtual in serving your customers.
• Can your employees work from home? Forward-looking companies are already encouraging their workers to do so as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. You should, too.
• So much business relies on relationships and networking. How can you switch your relationship cultivation and management to virtual venues?
• Can you shift your team meetings and even bigger corporate events to virtual forums? Instead of in-person conferences, consider doing virtual ones.
• Prepare for major disruptions to your supply chains, especially to your service providers.
• Anticipate a variety of travel disruptions and event cancellations.
• Society will undergo a wide variety of social norm changes. Evaluate the extent to which your business model and staff will be impacted by such changes.
• Help your employees prepare much better at home than the current guidelines from the CDC and other health organizations suggest.
• Be ready for unknown unknowns, also known as black swans, by reserving extra capital and other resources for unanticipated threats and disruptions associated with Covid-19.
• By taking all of these steps early, you will have a major competitive advantage. Be ready to use the consequences of this competitive advantage to seize market share from competitors that are inadequately prepared for these transitions. Be ready to hire highly qualified employees who will be let go in this environment by companies that trust too much the optimistic official guidelines on how to prepare.


Of course, you’ll want to adapt these broad guidelines to your own needs as quality leaders and professionals. Right now, you need to sit down and revise your strategic plans in a way that accounts for the cognitive biases associated with Covid-19. Do the same revision with major project plans.

By taking these steps, you’ll protect your business from the way-too-optimistic preparation guidelines of official health organizations and from our deeply inadequate gut reactions in the face of slow-moving train wrecks.


About The Author

Gleb Tsipursky’s picture

Gleb Tsipursky

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky helps quality professionals make the wisest decisions on the future of work as the CEO of the boutique future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. A proud Ukrainian American, he is the best-selling author of seven books, including Never Go With Your Gut: How Pioneering Leaders Make the Best Decisions and Avoid Business Disasters and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams: A Manual on Benchmarking to Best Practices for Competitive Advantage. His cutting-edge thought leadership has been featured in more than 650 articles in prominent publications such as Harvard Business Review, Fortune, and USA Today. His expertise comes from more than 20 years of consulting for Fortune 500 companies from Aflac to Xerox and more than 15 years in academia as a cognitive scientist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Ohio State. Contact him at Gleb[at]DisasterAvoidanceExperts[dot]com, Twitter@gleb_tsipursky, Instagram@dr_gleb_tsipurskyLinkedIn, and register for his Wise Decision Maker Course


Great article

Thank you for sharing the Covid-19 preparation guidance specially this time. I hope more organization and business leaders can read this article. I will share this to my family  and friends.

Important facts about Covid-19

Covid-19 is deadly virus that is attacking our breathing systems and we don't have assured treatment of it. In this situation, this article has very deep thoughts. We must be prepared to fight with corona physically and mentally. I also hope that this virus will automatically finish with the season otherwise our world in danger now, we have feared not only for our lives, even we will have to face a downfall of economy of the world where we will have to survive with so many challenges.

Absolutely great post.

Thanks for pulling this together. This information will help our leaders to be more effective in dealing Covid-19.

Every business needs to survive by being pessimistic

Our brain’s main way of dealing with threats is the fight-or-flight response. A great fit for the kind of short-term, intense risks we faced as hunter-gatherers, the fight-or-flight response is terrible at defending us from major disruptions caused by the slow-moving train wrecks we face in the modern environment, such as the Covid-19 pandemic. There's a need to prepare forehand and thanks for sharing this article to keep me in business!

I totally agree with you

Thanks for sharing this information. It's good to learn about the facts and possibilities so as to prepare once mind for the future. Thanks for sharing

A very timely reminder!

A very timely reminder for our leaders who are making critical decisions in this very crucial, life-threatening time. Hope they will hear your ideas.

This is very timely our

This is very timely our leaders need this kind of article to fight against covid-19

Two Thumbs Up on this

Hopefully the government could watch this for them to know that guidelines they implemented are for short term, and need to impose rules that could last long. Thank you for siting the 3 dangerous judgement errors and how to overcome these. Will definitely share this for the information of everyone.

Great Article!

One of the great article on how to prepare for the pandemic situation and the mistakes made by the quality professionals. Thanks for sharing.

Effective article

Thank you very much for giving us a scope to learn about the COVID-19 Coronavirus which is a deadly weapon nowadays. It will definitely help me a lot to protect myself from this dangerous virus. Thanks for sharing.

Helpful article

These guidelines help leaders on what they would do next facing this pandemic. Thanks for sharing.

Just in time

After reading your thought, I think you have the heart to lead people to make the best of their decisions. I'm not sure if our government is doing good in the fight against this pandemic. But I think that they need to consider the ideas you have writeen.

Trying times and mental blindspots

During difficult times like these, all we think about is survival. Because of our mental blindspots, we forget how to act more rationally. Its apparent with the hoarding and the mistakes seen during this pandemic. This is such a good read and it reminds us not to act on impulse because we might be heading for a bigger disaster

Informative and helpful article!

This is a must read! Getting this kind of information is very helpful during this time as the economy has been slowing down due to this pandemic. It is very important that we address and keep our organizations prepared.