banner ad

Tactical versus strategic responses to Coronavirus

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels
How we respond to Coronavirus/COVID-19 is vital. People are dying. It does not get more vital than that.

But most of our responses:

  1. treatments,
  2. quarantines and
  3. lockdowns
are tactical.

Most of the advice to businesses is also tactical. See for example: Seven key actions business can take to mitigate the effects of COVID-19

They respond to the threat as it is now.

But what are the more strategic responses to Coronavirus? And is this the right time to be considering them?

To understand the strategic implications, we need to understand:
  1. How might Coronavirus be indicative of a change in the nature of pandemics and the way they:
    • spread?
    • impact our world?
  2. How is society changing? And what impact does that have on the questions above?

The nature of pandemics

I've seen several people argue that futurists failed to predict the pandemic. That this proves that that trying to understand the future is pointless. But this is not true.

Pandemics are not new. We are all familiar with:
  1. The plague
  2. The Spanish 'flu
  3. Ebola
  4. SARS and MERS, etc.
Bill Gates talks very coherently about the dangers of epidemics in this 2015 Ted Talk. In fact, the narrative around epidemics is so well established that it has even penetrated popular culture. The 2011 film Contagion is probably the best-known example of this.

What we should be asking is:

  • Are they becoming more or less frequent?
  • More or less severe?
  • Are we getting better at detecting and neutralising them?
  • Are we more or less susceptible to their impact?
These are the things we need to understand to respond strategically.

The infographic to the right (History of Pandemics) might provide some clues to the answer to those questions.

(You can click on the infographic to zoom in.)

Within a changing society

Urbanisation brings more people into closer proximity with each other. Increases in travel diversify that contact more rapidly. Population ageing means we have larger numbers of vulnerable people.

Technology makes it easier to detect and track outbreaks.

What will be the long-term impacts on society, communities and business?

Might we see a slowing or even reversal of urbanisation?

Strategic responses

Armed with the answers to these questions:
  1. How can we make our organisations and supply changes more resilient?
  2. How can we better protect not just our workers, but also our customers and suppliers?
  3. Do we need to fundamentally assess our business models? For example, a conference organiser may be wholly reliant on bringing large numbers of people from many locations into a confined space. Should they consider diversifying into less fragile lines of business?
  4. What are the other macro-trends that will make these things more or less difficult to do?

Supply Chain Management

Supply chain management is the first strategic issue which comes to mind for most when thinking about pandemics. Perhaps more so than ever because the Coronavirus originated in China, which supplies so many of our manufacturing inputs.

And so organisations should be asking:
  1. Do we understand our whole supply chain?
  2. Have we included both suppliers of components and suppliers of computer systems and other capabilities?
  3. Do we have/need duplicate suppliers at every link in that chain?
  4. Are those duplications resilient? Or if one is impacted is the other likely to be impacted in the same way?
  5. Do we have good sense and respond systems? This will enable us to detect problems early and take appropriate actions quickly.

Remote working

One of the topics that have received quite a lot of publicity is remote working.

One of the many tactical responses to Coronavirus has been to send more workers to work from home.

This provides a good model for considering our tactical and strategic responses.

Tactically, we should ask how we can work remotely more effectively. See for example: Effective remote working tips for your business and Switching To Remote Work: 6 Things You MUST Get Right.

Strategically, many have begun to ask whether this will lead to a longer-term sustained increase in remote work. Once we've experienced the benefits of remote work, will we go back to the way things were before? Or, as Seth Godin writes, is this an opportunity for a more fundamental shift in the way we communicate?

Or perhaps once the crisis is over more powerful forces will push things back to how they were.
  • Some employees pay a premium to live closer to work. Will they pressure their colleagues to resume their arduous commutes?
  • Employers are heavily invested in office real estate. Will the continue to cram ever more people into ever smaller spaces?
  • Event organisers make their money by gathering large numbers of people together. Can they afford to stop?
  • People forced into remote work without adequate preparation may deliver poor results. Will this cause a backlash against remote work?
  • Is this outburst of enthusiasm for remote work a cry for help from the introverts among us? Will we revert to what some refer to as "the tyranny of the extroverts"?
If things don't revert to how they were before:
  • Can the providers of remote working technology keep up with the demand?
  • What will happen to all those people who support commuters? We will need to redeploy the train drivers, the staff canteen workers, and office cleaners.

B2B Marketing

B2B marketing has traditionally relied on tradeshows, conferences and site visits. These have all but dried up.

B2B companies are now turning to digital marketing in an attempt to compensate for this loss. But they are finding that they are far behind their B2C counterparts in this knowledge and capability.

Will they catch up? Will this be a boon for digital marketing agencies? What will be the long-term impact on the tradeshow and conference market be? Or will they struggle on for a while, reverting to business as usual as soon as they can?


Another topic which has received a lot of attention is the impact on pollution from economic shutdowns in China and Italy.

For example, this article in Forbes speculates that the shutdown in China saved more lives from pollution than it did from the virus.

Will this force a more fundamental rethink? Will it increase pressure for more environmentally friendly industry?

Economics versus humanity

I have seen a significant change in how people talk about economics versus humanity. In the past, people have tended towards polarised views. Either:

  1. It's all about maximising shareholder value.
  2. We should put people first.
The current crisis has taught us that these are not alternatives. We don't get to choose one or the other. They are intertwined.

Government policy is forced to find a balance between wildly diverse priorities such as:
  • the capacity for critical care within hospitals,
  • the capacity for people to self-isolate,
  • a wide range of side effects from isolation, including:
    • businesses forced to shut down and possible going bankrupt
    • job losses
    • the longer-term physical and mental health consequences of being cooped up at home for long periods of time
  • who bears all of the costs of the above, who gets compensation, how, and what are the longer-term economic implications of and on all of the above.
Our understanding of these issues has become suddenly more holistic. As has our understanding of how intractable some of the answers are in our increasingly complex and interconnected world. Critically, we are becoming increasingly aware that too much intervention too soon can be as bad as too little intervention too late.

This is throwing the social contract between government, private enterprise and individuals into stark relief. And it is changing the way people are talking about it. What will be the long-term impacts?

Preparing for the next crisis

In a period of crisis it is right that the focus is on the tactical response. But, sooner or later, we will also have to move beyond the tactical analysis into the strategic analysis. It is important that we prepare to do so. Otherwise, we risk being no better prepared if and when the next crisis arises.

I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or on social media.

See also


Unknown said...

In the U.S. the General Services Administration (GSA) is responsible for constructing and renting buildings for the Federal workforce. Shortly after 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing I suggested to a GSA official that they should stop massing people in large buildings that make such attractive targets for terrorists. He didn't want to hear it. Maybe the fear of pandemic will cause policymakers to give it further thought.

With respect to introverts, I loved Susan Cain's book. The Quiet Revolution's about statement includes a half dozen references to "online" and a dozen to "performance":

Chris Fox said...

It will be interesting to see the long-term effects. Will this crisis lead to sustained change? Or will it back to normal?

My personal view is that it will only lead to sustained change where it aligns with other powerful forces. For example, the 'green revolution'. The combination of this crisis and the green revolution may lead to a sustained decrease in business travel.

I am familiar with Susan Cain's work. I wish more people - both introverts and extroverts - were!