Decisions in the Age of COVID-19

“Oftentimes, the most important decisions are the most difficult to make - for, your future, and the future of the generations that come after you, hinges on the outcome of those decisions.”
― J.E.B. Spredemann, Englisch on Purpose

There are at least four reasons why it is hard to make decisions in a pandemic.

One: It is impossible to have complete information.

We planned a party for today. We know the people. We have some sense of where they’ve been and how healthy they are. We don’t know for sure who they’ve been in contact with, what their risk factors are, or how likely they are to be carrying the virus. We could take their temperatures before we invite them in, but even that won’t tell us all we need to know. We cannot know. We decided to postpone the party.

At a time like this, some of the most important answers are unknowable. For example, no one knows the transmission rate for covid-19, the fatality rate, or the future impact on you and your loved ones. Even the gestation period for this virus is uncertain. In more normal times, we wait until we know enough before we decide. Today, we don’t know enough; we cannot know enough; and we must decide.

Two: The rules are changing.

I am planning a flight to London in August. When I made the reservations last week, I understood the rules and the risks. I was relieved when the UK was exempted from the USA travel ban. Now the UK is included, and my reservation is in trouble again. How many more times can the rules change between now and then? When and how can I decide?

The risks and benefits that inform my decision calculations are determined by the rules of the game. Some games are Finite Games—where the rules, boundaries, adversaries, and winners are easy to see and possible to predict. Other games, like those we play today, are Infinite Games. The boundaries are fuzzy, enemies become friends, and the purpose is not to win, but to keep the game going.

In our current Infinite Game, some rules are determined by nature—If I pick up a used tissue, I increase my risk of catching the virus. Other rules come from my ethics—We are all in this together, so I should think of the welfare of others. The social, political, and economic environments define rules for their various games—Schools are open or closed, and parents are paid or not. We can assume that the rules of nature are constant. We can hope that, even in the most trying times, our ethical rules don’t change. We have no such assurances for the other rule-generators. My decision may be the best option today, but tomorrow we will be playing a totally different game. How can I decide?

Three: The choices may be mine, but the consequences belong to all of us.

I want to stock up on essential stuff. My store has lots of toilet paper, and I can afford to buy it all, so I do. That is my choice, but I am not the one to suffer the consequences. When the supply chains are down, I have more than I need, and my neighbors are without. Before long, we are all standing in lines for rationed goods.

 Interdependency is one of the fundamental characteristics of complex adaptive systems. A change in one part ripples through to influence other parts. This horizontal interdependency—of part to part—is hard enough to manage, but it isn’t the worst. Vertical interdependency complicates matters further. Parts, wholes, and greater wholes emerge together. A change for the part influences the whole, usually in unpredictable ways. The accumulation of all the wholes, gives us an emerging greater whole that influences us all, as we influence it. My decisions contribute to these emerging patterns in ways I cannot predict.

Four: We must choose between competing goods.

I value both safety and freedom. My mother’s nursing home closes to visitors to keep the residents safe, and that restricts my freedom to interact with her. I feel stir crazy with the limits of social distancing, so I meet a friend for coffee. Either one of us could pay dearly for choosing that little bit of freedom.

In the moment of decision, we are not simply choosing the better over the worse. It isn’t enough to choose to avoid one thing and end up with the other. It is much more complicated than that. We choose in a world of paradox and polarity. Two options are both good, and both have risks. Moving toward one moves away from the other. To make it even more difficult, the optimal balance between the two depends on context. In one situation, with one group, at one time, in one place, one of the options is significantly better. In another situation, the other rises to the top. We live in many contexts, and each of them is changing continually, so we must constantly recalculate the balance and be ready to change our choices to adapt.    

The challenge of competing goods is central to the theory and practice of HSD. We call them Interdependent Pairs1, because each individual polarity2 is massively entangled with many others. For example, my choice between freedom and safety is intimately entwined with my choice between independence and interdependence or between self and other. Each pair informs, and is informed by, many others. In our work, Interdependent Pairs:

  • Connect two options that are both good, but they are mutually exclusive
  • Create and also map the tensions in which we live and decide
  • Require us to understand the benefits and risks of both options
  • Open a range of possible choices that balance the consequences of both
  • Demand that we have capacity to work at either of the extremes and to choose a “best fit” place in the middle
  • Do not offer a point of perfect balance because what is “best” varies from time to time and context to context
  • Invite us to use Adaptive Action to be perpetually awake and aware of context, choices, and consequences

The power of Interdependent Pairs came into stark relief last week as we talked about COVID-19 with learners in the HSD Professional certification program. We live and work around the world and in a variety of industries from oil and gas to social justice and health care. We shared our stories about COVID-19 and named the tensions that are emerging for us and our communities in this turbulent time.

These are the Interdependent Pairs that emerged from our stories:

Active & Passive

Boundaries & Connections

Central & Marginal

Connection & Dependency

Contract & Expand

Data & Stories

Hope & Fear

Include & Exclude

Information & Fear

Intuition & Rationality

Knowing & Imagining

Limiting & Expanding

Local & Global

Moving forward & Being stuck

Perceptions & Realities

Planful & Agile

Protect & Explore

Reflection & Action

Regional & National

Reliable & Loyal

Restrictions & Innovations

Safety & Freedom

Self & Community

Short-term & Long-term

Struggle & Opportunity

Survival & Quality of life

Them & Us

Trust authority & Take responsibility

I felt my own tension fade away, as I listened to one person after another share the Interdependent Pairs. It was as if a map emerged from the wilderness. These pairs didn’t tell me how to resolve the complex tensions, but they did frame better questions to help me make decisions.

  • Where do I feel myself contracting, and is that what I choose to do?
  • What can/should I plan, and where should I play it by ear?
  • How much freedom am I willing to give up for my safety? For the safety of others?

I discovered that other people, around the world, are struggling with the same decisions I am. I felt hopeful that we could, individually and collectively, resolve the tensions and create a shared future.

We are engaged in ongoing dialogue about how to thrive in turbulent and uncertain times. What Interdependent Pairs would you add to this list? How do you balance, and when do you know to shift? How do you think and talk about the tensions you are feeling today?

To explore these and other emerging questions, we are launching a regular free, one-hour dialogue time. Find out more and plan to join us.

Thanks to these members of HSD Professional Cohort 54 whose dialogue sparked this reflection:

Francois Bachmann, Switzerland

Stacy Becker, USA

Eugenie Biddle, UK

Cindy Cox, UK

Didem Crosby, Switzerland

Martin Devine, UK

Gareth Evans, Wales

Kelly Fordham, British working in Uzbekistan 

Alexandra Gough, UK

Griff Griffiths, UK

Monica Leon, New Zealand

Thomas Lindqvist, Sweden

Lily Martens, Netherlands

 Elena Mauro, Italy

Leah McTaggart, UK

Wendy Morris, USA

Mary Nations, USA

Antonella Pagliarani, Italy

Emma Pearson, France

Hatice Yildiran, Turkey


2 Johnson, B. (2014). Polarity management: Identifying and managing unsolvable problems. Amherst, MA: HRD Press.

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