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  • Writer's pictureBill Holmes

The Importance of “framing” Part 10 – Getting it Wrong – COVID-19 – Part 2

Updated: Mar 26, 2020

Source: Dr. Shake Seigel, Programme Director (West Midlands), 2011

“If you are going to sin, sin against God, not the bureaucracy. God will forgive you but the bureaucracy won't.” Hyman G. Rickover

“How many twenty-second-century bureaucrats did it take to change a light panel? We'll have a sub-committee meeting and get back to you with an estimate.” Peter F. Hamilton, Great North Road

The slow and often incoherent reaction to the COVID – 19 pandemic is a sight to behold. It appears many large organizations around the world are having problems making what reasonable people would see as common sense decisions. Here are a couple of examples.

Countries who could have closed their borders from high risk areas of the world kept them open. Early in the crisis cities continued with large gatherings, and this weekend you could see Spring Break parties continue in Florida. I even heard of organizations demanding that people come into the office more in the midst of this pandemic!

Why is the pandemic causing large organizations to fumble what should be rational decisions? They are framing the issue incorrectly and their decision making model is tragically flawed for this particular situation.

Their frame has been “This is a business continuity issue!”

The correct frame is “This is a public health issue!”

See the difference?

If you are framing this as “a public health issue”, then every decision begins with the single question: “Does this increase the likelihood of virus transmission?” If the answer is “yes”, then you don’t do it! Hard stop. It is irresponsible to put people in danger and it is a principled high ground position that no one can make a persuasive argument against.

It also has the benefit of being simple. And people love simple!

Obviously this does not apply to first responders, health care professionals or the military. Those are special people who voluntarily put themselves in harms way. But we can help them by decreasing the number of people who require treatment.

If you are framing this as a business continuity issue, then you quickly enter a bureaucratic death spiral of indecision, non nonsensical positions and constantly shifting guidance. Furthermore, most large organizations are all about “inclusion”, “consensus building” and “strategizing, which is exactly the wrong management style in a crisis!

The meme at the top of the post represents Dr. Shake Siegel’s CAS Framework for decision making. In the bottom left you have predictability, and that is the world many large organizations live in. In a predictive world, the “let’s all get together and have a meeting” management style works. The middle of the slide shows a chaotic environment which calls for an adaptive management style. The top right is chaos, and chaos requires a command and control style. We might not like the decision, but at least we know what it is!

And right now we have chaos.

Combining the wrong frame with the wrong decision-making framework creates huge problems in an organization.

I routinely engage with colleagues in a variety of different countries and industries. It seems like organizations are either doing very well with COVID-19 or they are doing very poorly. Those that seem to be doing well saw this as a health crisis and quickly took steps to make rational decisions through that frame. Those that didn’t are really struggling to find their footing and still haven’t figured out basic operating principles.

How is your organization doing?


This virus and the war against it are going to force some fundamental changes in how things are done. In my next post I’ll make some observations and predictions. I was right about the virus, so you can see how I do! Compare it to your frame!


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