MERS, SARS, & Preparation

Disease outbreaks are one of the top “wild cards” in my field of forecasting. These are lower-probability but high-impact events. One is unfolding before our eyes. The best current information I’ve seen as I write this is here: (paywall)

I remember SARS well. I was pulled into a multi-day implication-focused discussion back in 2003 as a corporate team overseeing store openings in two major Chinese cities worked through the impact on their business and key decisions moving forward. I still use their situation as a case study in some leadership education sessions I conduct.

Photo: CDC

MERS is a crossover disease from camels. It is an airborne and surface-contacted virus. It was discovered in 2012 in the secretive kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Until recently it was thought to have a 40% fatality rate.

Just like SARS it features media-friendly images of crowds wearing face-masks on Asian streets, soaring case identification, thousands of people in quarantine, rumors, and the beginnings of panic.
Instead of China the epicenter is South Korea. The WHO is onsite and the information coming from the government is much more forthcoming that what we struggled with back in ’03 with the Chinese.

The “index case” – the first known victim – had tremendously high amounts of virus in his lungs. The most virulent spread has been in the hospital that treated him. A term to remember – “superspreading event” – occurred. An entire floor of St. Mary’s Hospital, open only a couple of months, was contaminated with 30 identified cases stemming from the one patient. One of those who got that initial contamination went on to pass the virus to 36 new cases in another hospital. Frightening.

Now more than 2500 people in South Korea are in quarantine and the government is reporting new cases daily.

What to do?

Watch carefully. Seoul is a major airport location. Seek out information about how the illness progresses. There’s thought that it may be more virulent at different stages. But also keep a level head and take to heart that the virus is now fatal in just 10% of cases.

Begin to
prepare contingency plans if the disease either continues to multiply in South Korea but especially if it’s reported in new countries. Develop the implications on your organization, job, colleagues, community, and especially your family. Investigate which treatments are being used. Preemptively lay in a stock of face masks – which you understand will not protect the wearer but will prevent the wearer from spreading the virus if they’ve been exposed.

We’re not at the state where this outbreak threatens anything but this past year’s failure of the flu virus, the fairly regular reports of virus outbreaks from animal crosses (especially avian flu) should cause you to think that this is something that belongs in your long term thinking and organization’s s.
emergency preparedness.

Strategy, Not Knee-Jerk

Today a lawmaker who was briefed on the Federal Office of Personnel Management breach of employee data leaked that the incident is far worse than originally reported. Not 4 but maybe as many as 14 million records of federal employees, past and present, are in the hands of the bad people. Very disturbing.

OPM Seal Small
hese record sets are what is known as “fulls” or “fullz” in the hacker lingo. They are full sets of information. Names, addresses, phones, social security numbers, pay, health records, military service records, and – most damaging – security clearances. Think of the opportunities. Think of the damage. Think of the outrage from the victims that their very safety and personal property has been exposed.

Plus it may have come from China.

But what bothers me most is the knee-jerk reaction from the Congressional hawks. They want a response. They want to declare war. They want to go to the alleged perps servers and destroy data. John McCain is almost shouting for a “preemptive strike.”

It’s another example of governmental leaders making quick decisions without thinking through the implications or consequences. Cyberwar is nothing trivial. Not only could it unleash a storm of “weaponized code” – as my clients in the information security world call it – but it may not come only from from a few sources like China or North Korea. The entire hacking community could get involved. That’s a lot of enemies. The implications are chilling.

McCain spoke about the ability to shut down the US power grid from abroad. If the US declares cyberwar we can probably expect exactly that type of action. The hawks will have guaranteed it. Often the government takes action without thinking through the unintended consequences.

Stuxnet, the malware developed to attack Iran’s centrifuges concentrating nuclear material, turned out to be reverse engineered and various versions were dropped back into US systems and weapons systems.

Let’s not forget that the Snowden incident was a game-changer. One person was able to create an entirely different perception about government collection of data on upstanding citizens. He revealed the capabilities of the NSA and the US Cyber Command. Cybersecurity is an area where one person can create significant damage.

It is never good strategy to reveal your thinking to your enemy. “What’s wrong with you Santino? Never let someone outside of the Family know what you’re thinking.” Is it really a good idea to rattle sabers if you don’t have a prepared strategy to back it up. We can almost guarantee that one does not exist.

The smart way to approach this problem is with a two-pronged effort. One is the ratification of US and worldwide law that provides severe penalties for these actions. That’s what McCain should be backing and initiating with his history of taking brave political initiative. But the other prong should be a robust but clandestine plan to penetrate, invade, creatively disable enemies and deal with as many resulting contingencies as possible.

The Analytics Payoffs

For a lot of years I’ve been sharing a conclusion from decades of observing small group activity. I believe that when 5 or more people work together effectively on a challenge they bring the intellect of at least a genius to the work. It doesn’t matter if the group members are smart or high in an organization or what we believe is well-educated. I watched it for years and then put a measure to it.

Back when we used to have more time during training or planning or decision-making settings I used to administer a short quiz fashioned after the preliminary entrance exams for membership in Mensa, the society of genius-level IQ holders. I would do it as an intellectual warm-up. In order to determine if you could gain entry to Mensa you would need to score at least 7 out of 10 correct answers.

Every group, whether made up of corporate executives or hospital maintenance workers, to which I gave the test scored 7 or higher. Around half would score perfectly.

Today, the use of analytic techniques is proving my point. At the Wharton People Analytics Conference an interview published on Knowledge@Wharton cited Google’s head of HR Laszlo Bock who is an evangelist for the use of analytics in the field. Teams, when put together correctly, are at least geniuses.

The Wharton interview is full of useful bits of information. Make sure an employee being “on-boarded” meets their management on the first day. A person’s success at a company depends heavily on who they work for. A team IQ is often greater than the sum of the parts. A mix of introverts and extroverts along with norms of behavior make the most productive teams. Moneyball got it right and is at least partly responsible for the upsurge in the people analytics.

Surprisingly, the best firm on hiring, according to Wharton experts, is Teach for America. A not-for-profit that has embraced analytics in order to get better teachers in front of kids. But the organization also knows that they don’t know enough yet. That’s a good lesson for those of us who are futurists. Go with the best information you have but always doubt it and find even better ways of making good decisions.

The biggest question about the use of analytics overall? Why more top leaders are not embracing it. Whether it’s a lack of hubris or a fear that it might replace jobs it’s a baffling question but the condition exists. I hope for a change.

In almost all of my busiest industry niches there’s buzz about “Big Data.” Mostly buzz. Not much there, there yet. But it’s coming in a big way and the harbinger may be people measurement, especially help in hiring. Another observation I’ve made over the years of managing my own businesses was that a bad key person hiring (manager, salesperson, technician, creative talent) would cost at least 3-4 times their annual compensation. People analytics is proving it now.

While there’s more buzz about marketing analytics than anything else in the media my bet is on human resources as the place where the first major inroads will be for analytics in organizations.

Lessons from the Iran Negotiations

Most of my work is with groups making decisions. Typically those are strategy decisions being made in uncertainty.

This week I was struck by the reporting of what resulted in a tentative nuclear deal between the rest of the world. It was painful, wrenching, intense, and eventually somewhat successful. In the months ahead more of the same will be necessary to put something in writing.

By U.S. Department of State from United States [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Here’s the story I read from the New York Times:

There were several areas where pragmatists who deal with or participate in group dynamics and the best practices of decision-making could take lessons:

The resolution of the two sides to stay engaged was key. Both sides need a deal. Iran wants to relieve the oppressive burden of sanctions. The implications of an ability to produce nuclear weapons by a Shiite nation has driven fear to the top of the scale for Mideast nations, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Wendy Sherman, the lead American negotiator, used a white board to track agreements and record problems and hurdles to overcome. Seems old school but an ability to put big print in front of groups is where I live. It’s essential. It also points up the need for somebody to be organized, to hold feet to fires, and to not let go until solutions emerge. One uses what works. In Sherman’s case it was brilliant. A failure to keep the group accountable would have led to failure.

The negotiation group also realized that artificial deadlines are a detriment to good decisions. The end of March deadline came from the Obama administration. The French pushed back. The wrangling will go on the months ahead but the spirit of the deal is there and came a bit after the imposed deadline.

It’s much the same when I work with strategy teams. In a couple of weeks one of my clients has an issue involving systemic risk that will involve painful and contentious discussions that have a long history in their region and organization. While I think we’ve set aside enough time, my goal is to have the big pieces of an agreement in place and let the word-smithing discussions to take place after contemplation. Important decisions can always benefit from a bit more time for consideration.

Learn what you can from Lausanne. Keep engaged. Keep organized. Have a driver in place that won’t lift eyes from the road to the goal. Work steadily and painfully, if necessary, toward agreement. Get creative. Don’t hesitate to extend deadlines when the goal is in sight.