As economies are beginning to open up all over the world, leaders in government and in various industries will be conducting “post-mortems” to determine what happened, what went wrong and how they can do better next time.
While it is important for leaders to understand both how they and their countries and companies were affected by—and how they effected—the economic and public health course of the pandemic, they must also be very careful not to fall into the trap of simply answering “why did this happen?” They must also have an eye towards “what may happen next?”
The adage that hindsight is 20/20 is well-known, but, in fact, perfect vision looking backwards is both untrue and unhelpful.
Hindsight is untrue because we inevitably fall into the trap of the narrative fallacy when we try to explain how we ended up where we did. It is our attempt to make sense of the world by imposing a story line that fits with the data as we see it—to explain and in turn to control what has just shocked or surprised us.
The narrative fallacy is related to a phenomenon is called framing. Framing occurs when a person views a situation in a particular way and then organizes the facts he or she sees to fit into that contextual frame. Picking a frame, however, may result in highlighting those facts that fit at the expense of those that don’t. For example, if a person views a hospital policy regarding resource allocation with an eye towards the limited resources of a hospital, he or she may highlight different points than if he or she views the issue with a focus on the autonomy of individual patients who come to the emergency department seeking care.
Similarly, one who frames the issue of healthcare delivery in general as a public good will emphasize how public health organizations and government agencies should work together with hospitals and health care systems to provide access to care and prevent disease. On the other hand, when seen as a private good, health care delivery is framed in terms of how to treat individuals based on their own personal histories, desires, and life goals. This view emphasizes personal responsibility and freedom of choice over collective effort.
Corresponding with hindsight’s veracity is its usefulness. Even if one could escape the narrative fallacy and accurately understand how we arrived at the current moment, it does not mean that we will be prepared for the next unforeseen event. Simply looking backwards does not help a person see what’s ahead of him or her. An unforeseen event is one that comes when people don’t expect it; we are not prepared, and that is why it can be so damaging.
Good forward-thinking analysis demands that leaders reason by analogy. Analogical reasoning is more than simply applying what happened before to what happens next. Through this form of reflection, a person compares the situation at hand to previous and potential future experiences, accounting both for the similarities that may be encountered and for the differences that must be addressed. By recognizing that unique factors entail particular responses, “best practices” can no longer apply a “one size fits all” policy. There may be other dynamics that override the applicability of a standard practice, especially when those factors are outside the norm.
Rather than rely on the cliche regarding hindsight, it would be more apt for leaders to consider the Talmudic understanding of the Biblical expression, “A wise person has eyes in his head.” Understanding the complexities that make up a problem—or an opportunity—entails that leaders see the particularities of individual situations as well as commonalities that they may share with other experiences. When conducting “post-mortems” for this pandemic, therefore, leaders should not attempt only to examine what occurred. They should also reflect on how events of this pandemic compare to other disaster events as well as near-misses. In addition, they should consider how future events will be unique in their own ways, so that any strategy they adopt for how to go forward will include flexibility and the ability to pivot or change course if necessary. It is having an eye to what’s ahead—but with a range of vision that is 180 degrees—that will allow leaders to use the past as preparation for the future.
By: Ira Bedzow
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