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Transformation in the Time of Pandemic

March 27, 2020

NB: it goes without saying that this is another long post. But as the majority of my 1,500-strong readership is now in lock-down or at the very least working from home, what else are you gonna do? Please also note, this post makes for some challenging and uncomfortable reading. I hope you’re ready to raise your ambitions and meet the challenge.

I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.

J.R.R. Tolkien – The Fellowship of The Ring

To my dear Readers,

I hope last week’s piece helped you begin to make sense of the global events currently unfolding. I deliberately use the term begin because:

(i) sense making is never a one-off, rather it’s something you need to be always doing; and
(ii) so many dynamics are now at play, and these dynamics are now catalysing other dynamics, meaning that many contexts are changing by the day, and in some instances, by the hour.

Another long night, one decade and half a lifetime ago…

Funnily enough, last Wednesday was the first time I’d pulled an all-nighter since I summited Everest with four of my dear friends, a decade ago. That night was a long one, too. But long night’s tend to be worth the effort, especially if you’re on an 8,000m mountain. They’re never easy, especially in the dreaded after-midnight to 4 am phase when it’s a cold, miserable, chronically-hypoxic grind. But then you get the first sliver of dawn on the curved horizon and soon enough the most breathtakingly beautiful sight unfolds below you—the world at your feet.

The world unfolding at your feet. (Here’s a blast from the past—it’s my

I remember looking straight down the vertical Kangshung Face into Tibet, 3,000m below. A further 1,000m down and it was still dark out on the Tibetan plain, but I saw a single light in the distance, maybe 40 kilometres away. A Tibetan farmer, perhaps getting up for his day’s work.

I felt as if I could reach out and touch him.

And that was the moment that it really hit me, more than at any other point in my life. We are all in this together. We are all connected. It was the defining point of my life. And this story of connection remains. It’s the only true story. In fact, it’s truer than it’s ever been before:

We’re all in this together, because we’re all in this together*.

*In a globalised world we literally are all in this one world together. That’s why it’s called a pandemic.

But let’s avoid premature convergence and not make the mistake of thinking we’re close to the dawn of a new day. That will come, but not now. We still have a long, stormy night ahead of us. In fact, we’ve only just left our tents. Dynamics are reconfiguring anew. They will continue to do so for years and decades ahead. Don’t expect things to go completely back to normal. Normal was only an illusion, anyway.

Following-on from last week’s piece

When I wrote my last piece only seven days ago, many people in countries such as the US and Australia were still failing to grasp the true nature of this pandemic. Evidence of this was—and still is—everywhere.

But these people will be on the wrong side of history.

Down here in Australia, a muddled, confusing response from our federal government sees them firmly situating themselves on that wrong side. It seems as though we’re playing the herd immunity card. I am very concerned that we are to likely pay a much bigger price for it in the longer term. I hope I’m wrong.

Now if you’re thinking, “hang on a minute pal, stop havin’ a go at our leaders: they’re trying to do their best under very trying circumstances”, then I’d ask you to reread last week’s piece. In particular, please read the papers written by Harry Crane and Joseph Norman, Yaneer Bar-Yam & Nassim Taleb.

The basic point I was making was this:

If you treat this pandemic like it’s the flu, then you’re an idiot.

If someone walks down the street and has a heart attack, you can walk down the street and be OK. But if someone walks off a cliff and dies, do you walk off a cliff too? That’s what happens with this virus.

Influenza has a transmission rate of R1.3, meaning that every person who has the flu is likely to pass it on to another 1.3 people. Thus, its transmission rate is closer to being additive rather than multiplicative. What makes SARS CoV 2 so dangerous is that its transmission rate is about R3, meaning that every person who gets it is likely to pass it on to another three people. Thus, its transmission rate is non-linear and multiplicative, or using the term that everyone seems to prefer, exponential.

Although the numbers in the US already seem out of control, many people here in Australia seem to think that she’ll be right.

But of course, if we take that attitude, we won’t be right.

Complexity thinkers in the northern hemisphere

Over the past few days I’ve been on group calls with a number of different northern-hemisphere based complexity scientists, including Dave Snowden from Cognitive Edge in the UK and Yaneer Bar-Yam from the New England Complex Systems Institute in the US. I have to admit, it’s exhausting being in that space, with so much unfolding hour by hour, but it’s one of the levels at which I have some agency, and if nothing else, I learn a lot which in turn enables me to have better agency in other spaces (this being one of them).

From the conversations that I’ve been part of, all I can really do is reiterate the need for every individual to act as if their actions alone can avert this impending catastrophe. We cannot afford to ignore the fact that when Wuhan went into lockdown on January 23rd China had about 800 cases, and over the course of two months—with widespread lock-down enforced—China now has over 80,000 cases. Here in Australia—as of today—we have nearly 3,000 cases, and we are not in a widespread lock-down (yet). The US—as of today—has about 70,000 cases, and it is not yet in a widespread lock-down (yet). China’s hundred-fold increase in case numbers over two months would in Australia be 300,000 and in the US be seven million. In eight weeks. Again, I hope I’m wrong.

If you’re still not convinced of the argument, please refer to a more articulate piece written yesterday (March 25th) by Bar-Yam and Taleb and published in The Guardian.

And speaking of Bar-Yam, this paper by him and other NECSI alumni providing very clear guidance on how you can act as if and stop the spread of the virus (it’s a detailed prescription of how to go about your everyday life while factoring in all of the measures that you need to undertake; passing it on to your parents and grandparents and elderly friends could help save their lives).

System change: a different ontology

Having gotten that off my chest—and given my core area of work is not epidemiology but rather system change, usually in the form of organisational transformation—the different governmental responses to this pandemic provides us with an amazing opportunity to watch and interpret the evolving situation in real time, through a lens of complexity and systems change.

For those of you who work in organisations toying with the notion of complexity-based approaches to change—especially if you work in the executive, HR, or transformation office—now is the time to get up to speed. Now is the opportunity to enable your system to learn. As the world reconfigures, you’ll never get a better opportunity.

And for those of you who don’t work for such organisations, here’s a confronting heads up: like the people who think this pandemic isn’t serious, your organisation will also be on the wrong side of history.

It’s all about context

One of the critical ideas to grasp when seeking to change systems is the need to be able to work within and across multiples of different contexts at the same time. This is quite challenging for most of us who have lived in a world where we have taken for granted—just like the goldfish that is unaware of the water it in which it swims—the ascension of western neoliberal democracy, with its correspondingly strong beliefs about individual freedoms (recall my reference last time to Francis Fukuyama’s End of History.

This ascension means that we may be prone to assuming it is the only true context.

Now this might be a stretch, but I’m gonna suggest that—mathematically at least—neoliberalism is based on assumptions of independent and identically distributed outcomes and atomism. Ontologically it’s a worldview that subscribes to stable averages, predictable variation, and reliable confidence intervals. It’s a worldview which privileges stability over instability, structure over process, objects over connections between objects, and being over becoming. Of concern is that extreme outcomes and events do not fit comfortably into this ontology, which is why you’ve seen such a lackadaisical response from so many countries towards the COVID-19 outbreak.

As I’ve said before, a different—Paretianontology is required to understand complex systems. This worldview is built on knowledge of connectivity, interdependency and non-linear/exponential dynamics. It is a world which has unstable averages and huge variation, and where confidence intervals are useless. This worldview preferences instability over stability, process over structure, connections between objects over objects, and becoming over being. It’s a worldview which understands the possibility of extreme outcomes, and as such, it’s an ontology that will help you understand the pandemic (in addition to many other complex system-related phenomena). It’s also why there’s a common saying amongst complexity theorists that everyone becomes a socialist when they’re in the midst of a pandemic.

But regardless of any particular ideological bent*, it’s also an ontology that you must have if you desire to affect system change. It’s also an ontology you’ll need to have if you’re seeking to change individual behaviour, as long as those individuals belong to a system. And yes, for all of you executives, senior leaders and HR folk who are reading this, this includes you.

*In case you’ve ever wondered what my ideological bent is, you might be surprised to find out that I don’t have one. It’s horses for courses, if you will: each context has an appropriate response. Thus, I’m all for liberty and all that comes with it, just not so much in contexts involving a rapidly-spreading global pandemic and an ever-warming global climate. So perhaps I do have an ideological bent after-all; let’s call it contextualism.

Working in and across multiple scales and multiple contexts

One of the many challenges associated with working in and across systems is not only knowing what your contexts are, but also knowing whether or not you have agency* in these contexts. (This has been a huge source of frustration for me personally over the past three weeks, because I have no agency at the Australian federal government level**).

* I like to think of agency as simply a means to act otherwise to alter the course of events.
** We only get it once every three years. Although New Zealander Prime Minister Jacinda Adern did implore all Kiwis prior to entering their four week lock-down to “act like you have COVID-19”. Now that’s what I call a subjunctive as if. Maybe I do have agency (in New Zealand)?

Knowing your contexts is not very easy in the Paretian world*, where by its very nature contexts are connected and interdependent, and are therefore constantly changing. And whilst being able to differentiate between Gaussian and Paretian contexts is a good starting point, it’s also much more complex than that. You have to delve much deeper into a myriad of deeply enmeshed, deeply connected, and forever-changing contexts. This is why such work can be exhausting, because you are juggling so many different contexts at once.

* In the Gaussian world, where everything is independent and identically distributed, you don’t have this problem. Contexts are isolated and separate, and so they don’t influence nor change one another.

In addition, it’s simply not enough to juggle multiple scales of only one context. (This is particularly relevant in the Paretian context, where non-linear dynamics give rise to fractal/self-similar properties, where each context is nested into another similar—but at different scale—context, which is nested into another context, and so-on-and-so-forth.)

Rather, you have to be able juggle multiple scales of multiple types of contexts* & **.

* My apologies, because I know your head just exploded.
** To get your head around this concept of multiple scales of multiple type of contexts, a serendipitously beautiful moment occurred this morning when this email arrived, from the wonderfully insightful and creative Tim Urban. In it he delivers a much more evocative description of different scales and contexts than I could ever possibly do.

Temporal and spatial scales

To be specific, by different types of contexts I am referring to temporal and spatial scales. By temporal I mean time, and by spatial I mean, well… space. If one hopes to have agency in a system, one must have an understanding of both the spatial and temporal scales from which the system emerges, and within which one has (or does not have) agency. This is complexity theory 101—know your system’s boundaries and constraints.

In the context of COVID-19, the spatial scales are pretty straight-forward*. In terms of physical spaces where outbreaks can occur, you could argue that this ranges from an individual space such as a room, to the house within which that room is located, to the street upon which the house is located, to the suburb within which the street is located, to within which the city the suburb is located, and so-on-and-so-forth, all the way up to countries, continents and the entire Earth. There aren’t really any unknowns here.

* Well, at least the physical spatial scales are. Non-physical spatial scales are another matter entirely; we’ll touch upon them in a moment.

The temporal scales of the pandemic are however somewhat more ambiguous. Although we know that at one end of the scale the virus has an incubation period of a fortnight, and at the other a vaccine is likely to be available in 12-18 months time, in between these two knowns not much else is known in terms of how quickly its spread can be mitigated (which is why, in the face of such uncertainty, the precautionary principle should be applied).

But despite the ambiguities associated with the middle band of temporal scales, both the temporal and spatial scales are still very much knowable. All good so far. (But not for long.)

The problem of non-physical spatial scales

The problem is that we start to encounter serious problems when the interplay between different sizes of temporal and spatial scales leads to new types of spatial scales being created. These new types of spatial scales are non-physical in nature. And although these new types of spatial scales are not visible, you can certainly see the impacts of them as they interact with each other, across both physical spatial scales and temporal scales. And you can certainly see the impacts of them as you interact with them, across both physical spatial scales and temporal scales.


Non-physical spatial scales appear in many different forms, and include family relationships, friendship groups, political parties, work cultures, organisational and societal structures, markets, and economies, to name but a few (ideas and knowledge are two even more esoteric examples).

You’ll be familiar with all of these non-physical spatial scales, even though you can’t see them. You can’t see them, but they are very real. And not surprisingly, all of these non-physical spatial scales are emergent properties of relationships (i.e., non-linear dynamics) between things (such as people).

If the penny didn’t just drop, let me make very it clear:

Once physical spatial scales and temporal spatial scales become connected through the dynamics of human relationships (and remember, the virus is but one example of how humans are connected to each other), these new non-physical spaces become Paretian in nature.

That means that all non-physical spaces—including family relationships, friendship groups, political parties, work cultures, organisational and societal structures, markets, and economies within which you are deeply enmeshed—are firmly situated in the realms of Taleb’s Extremistan. And what do we remember about Extremistan?

We remember this:

Mediocristan vs Extremistan

non-scalable vs scalable
mild randomness vs extreme randomness
typical member is mediocre vs no typical member
winner gets a small slice vs winner takes all
historical vs modern
subject to dampening vs subject to acceleration
physical vs informational
many small events vs a few huge events
easy to predict vs hard to predict
history crawls vs history jumps
Gaussian distributions vs Pareto distributions

Given that I included cultures, markets and economies in my above description of non-physical spatial scales, perhaps you can begin to understand why I am saying with absolute conviction* that regardless of how quickly—or otherwise—the health issue of the pandemic resolves itself, things ain’t going back to normal (i.e., history jumps).

* This conviction is called ‘skin in the game’. Live and die by the sword, right?

Back to my point: system change

Bringing this whole conversation back to the topic of system change, what this means is that if you’re trying to change non-physical spatial systems which feature high levels of connectivity and interdependency—remembering these traits are the hallmark of any human system—you must treat them differently to how you would treat a physical spatial system. That’s why Newtonian physics and engineering are appropriate for building a house or designing an engine, but they just don’t cut it for non-physical spaces.

You cannot assume non-physical systems to be independent and identically distributed. Such an assumption is wrong, wrong, wrong.

In terms of my core work area of systems change i.e. organisational transformation, the reason transformation programs fail so often—and I make this comment based upon much observation, anecdote and of course numerous consultant and academic articles—is because they make the above false assumption.

In short they are wrong, wrong, wrong.

This is transformation (well actually, transforming)

In what may seem like an incredibly short period of time, the world has been dramatically thrown off-axis. Consider what you took for granted at the beginning of March. And now consider how little you can take for granted only 27 days later. We are only in the early stages of this pandemic. Whilst the health crisis will resolve itself in a relatively short period of time, its unexpected consequences will continue to unfold for decades.

And in an instant, many transformation programs have been exposed for what they are: cheap talk about transformation, and little else. So much money has been torched, and for naught.

The new reality has arrived. This—as in, right now—is transformation.

Whereas the majority of transformation programs are understood to be about things—such as the platitudinous identification of cultural values and company purpose, and the holding of workshops and retreats and conferences by bogus thought leaders, futurists, best-selling authors, and bullish!t artists—everybody will increasingly realise over the coming days, weeks, months and years how much a load of bullocks that was. It is exactly that kind of thinking that has gotten us into this mess.

Transformation is about dynamics and connections, and not things. Transformation is about verbs, not nouns. Transformation is a constantly unfolding process.

Remembering my earlier comment that things ain’t going back to normal, transformation is no longer some ‘thing’ which organisations can simply ‘do’. Rather, transformation becomes transforming and it’s a process that organisations are now part of, regardless of whether they like it or not.

Buckle up, folks.

A sense making exercise involving you

Given everything that’s going on, I think it’s time to involve all of you in a sense making exercise. Over the coming weeks I’ll be asking you all to participate. Please stay tuned.

With thanks and love,


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