Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic: Identifying Problem Type

Andrey Burmakin/Shutterstock.com. Image used under license from Shutterstock.com

Like the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 is a real-time case study in leadership best (and worst) practices. Consequently, leaders at all levels have an opportunity to learn valuable lessons during this global crisis to better prepare themselves for future crises.

What follows is the first in a series of articles highlighting those leadership lessons, beginning with the importance of accurately defining problem types BEFORE trying to solve them.

Problems are like people they should be approached as individual entities. Unfortunately, leaders too often attempt to solve problems as if they all were the same. But they’re not. As David Crislip and Carl Larson noted in their book Collaborative Leadership: How Citizens and Civic Leaders Can Make a Difference, problems are one of three types:

Type I Problem: Clear Problem, Clear Solution: A Strong Leader is Needed to Make the Decision.

EXAMPLE: Two teams have booked the same conference room for a meeting, but a second conference room down the hall is open.

Type II Problem: Clear Problem, Unclear Solution: A Leader Seeks Input from Others and Works with Others to Make an Informed Decision.

EXAMPLE: Your organization has outgrown your current location, so you must decide what to do next.

Type III Problem: Unclear Problem, Unclear Solution: Strong Teams or Groups are Needed to Assess the Problem, Potential Solutions, and Methods for Implementations.

EXAMPLE: Your organization has lost significant market share to its two largest competitors over the past year.

Note that this problem at first appears clear (which would make it a Type II Problem). However, before you can solve the market share problem, you must first figure out WHY you are losing the market share (which makes it a Type III Problem).

Most of the problems that leaders are asked to solve are Type II or Type III. But over and over again, they misidentify these as simple Type I problems and then proceed to “solve” them by engaging in a Type I approach: a strong leader acting decisively to implement a solution.

The serious consequences of these “solutions” will be discussed in the next article in this series. But for now, let’s look at real-time case study of misidentifying problem type: the COVID-19 pandemic.

When it became obvious that the coronavirus was a serious threat, most leaders approached it with the following Type I problem-identification process:

1. Our clear problem is a pandemic caused by a virus for which we have no vaccine and no cure. This is a serious health and healthcare crisis.

2. Therefore, our clear solution is to take whatever steps necessary to slow the spread of the virus to keep it from overwhelming our healthcare system (“Flattening the Curve”).

3. We will measure the success of our solution by how well we slow the spread of the virus and limit hospitalizations and mortality rates.

Based on identifying the problem as Type I, leaders implemented government-mandated business and school closures, mass quarantines, travel restrictions, and a host of other far-ranging actions all designed to stop the short-term spread of the virus — regardless of any long-term implications or costs. These actions have led to a number of serious economic and psychological/social problems, including the loss of 22 million American jobs in just the past four weeks and huge increases in calls to domestic-abuse and mental-health hotlines.

Now imagine what different actions leaders could have taken if they had defined the problem as follows:

1. We are facing a pandemic caused by a virus for which we have no vaccine and no cure. We have to accept that, no matter what actions we take, many people will die until we have a vaccine and/or a cure. This creates at least three serious and multi-faceted crises: health & healthcare, economic, and psychological & social.

2. Therefore, any solution(s) we come up with will have to address the following three challenges: slowing the spread of the virus in the short term, limiting the long-term economic impact, and addressing both the short- and long-term psychological and social effects of the pandemic on individuals and our society as a whole.

3. We will measure success by criteria that will need to be developed quickly by experts in each of the three critical areas of healthcare, economics, and psychology/sociology.

This Type III approach undoubtedly would have led to more balanced solutions that could have simultaneously addressed both the short- and long-term challenges facing our society in all three areas. For example, leaders could have implemented a one-week lock-down and used that time to assemble experts in all three areas to develop a plan for dealing with the pandemic in prudent manner. Instead, they took swift, decisive actions as if it were a simple Type I problem— which in the end may indeed prove more damaging than the virus itself.

Our leaders are facing some difficult decisions in the days, and certainly no longer than weeks, ahead. Because the one thing almost every health expert, politician, and economist can agree upon is that the current situation is unsustainable without creating a world-wide depression or redefining what it means to live in a free society.

That means at some point in the near future, leaders are going to be forced to adopt a more systemic, long-term Type III approach to the COVID-19 pandemic. And the only way that can happen is by accepting that no matter what they do, people (and perhaps a lot of them) are going to continue to die from the virus until we can develop a vaccine and/or cure for it.

While that is a sobering proposition to accept, it is one they ultimately will have to accept. Because developing and implementing Type III solutions that address all three crises is the only long-term path forward. And that path was made longer and much more difficult because leaders misidentified the type of problem they were dealing with from the start.

President of Marathon Leadership, LLC — an organizational and leadership consulting firm based in Thornton, CO. Learn more at http://marathonleadership.com/

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store