How do we recognise the right questions that hold answers for our institutions’ survival?

In future history, the human organisations that perished during the COVID-19 crisis, the ones that survived in their original form and the ones that re-emerged in alternate singular or pluralistic forms, will be the sources of insight into the dynamics of a resurrection post crisis. The intent of this essay is to provide one possible framework on how to search for such insights whenever the time is ripe for such an exercise. How do we dissect, test, improve upon, or integrate new insights to achieve a holistic, and — most importantly — actionable framework?

The Crisis 

Crisis is a state possible only for complex systems. We don’t experience a plumbing ‘crisis’ at home as we experience a financial, relationship or a health crisis. The characteristics that define a crisis are: 

  • Its occurrence couldn’t have been foreseen quickly enough to be prepared for it. 

  • There is uncertainty about the survival of the system over a period of time.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which we are in the middle of right now, has been declared as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) by WHO. By dealing with it for half a year and based on our past brushings with similar viruses (causing common colds, SARS and MERS) we have gathered some necessary knowledge to create scientifically viable models and predict a few certainties. With a mortality rate of 5.92% COVID-19 doesn’t adversely affect humanity’s chances of survival. We also do not see humanity driving the causal virus SARS-CoV-2 to extinction anytime in the near future, even with herd immunity and a vaccine. We are looking at a future in which 82% of the human population is infected. Only then will our population achieve enough herd immunity to limit the rate of spread and severity of the disease. At that point, along with a vaccine to expedite the outcome, the pandemic would be reduced to a state of endemic — a homeostatic stage where there is a constant but manageable number of infections within a certain section of population, just like a seasonal flu. That’s where the certainties run out. 

 

Coming to the uncertainties, the virus’s current Intrinsic Reproductive Number (which assesses the number of people effected by one person who is transmitting the virus) ranges from as high as 5.7 to as low as 1.4. We are at too early a stage to know the seasonal patterns in transmissions, the durability of immunity of previously infected or vaccinated individuals, and the time required to ensure availability of a potent and safe vaccine.


The pandemic itself is not a crisis. We know that humanity will survive it. The primary crisis has its roots in our healthcare systems. To be more precise, given the uncertainties and unknowns about the disease and its pathogen, our healthcare systems are inundated with way more patients than they can effectively deal with without collapsing. This passes on the crisis to administrative systems to introduce measures to bring down the transmission rate of the virus without collapsing the other critical organisational systems that they are supposed to keep running — commerce, law and order, food security and the like. In today’s globally interconnected world, there is no precedent for any effective standard operating procedures for administrative systems to achieve that objective. The measures ranging from partial to complete restriction of movement of individuals were neither monitored nor managed effectively and therefore could not prevent the other organisational systems from entering into a crisis. In the preceding few months we’ve witnessed the symptoms of several systemic collapses such as bankruptcy of commercial enterprises, accelerated tragedies of socio-economic inequalities and entire countries staring into a dire future.

The Urge for Resurrection

While organisations collapsing under this crisis occupy one end of the spectrum, other organisations are thriving in this pandemic such as pharmaceuticals, video streaming and online meeting platforms, internet service providers, e-commerce retailers, etc. Most of the organisations that are thriving at this end of the spectrum are a poor source of insights into how organisations can survive and recover. They were just in the right business at the right time and they may not be good at surviving crises specific to their industries such as unhealthy populace or prolonged internet outages. The real goldmines are the organisations that are adversely affected by this crisis as their collapse or survival would be an outcome of their direct and indirect interactions with an actual crisis. 

 

Though the term resurrection sounds like an act of mythical significance, the unadulterated meaning is just survival through a crisis. The intent to survive by dodging a threat or adapting to live with it is a characteristic of complex systems on this planet called ‘living things’. Human organisations inherit these intents from their fundamental elements — we humans. If we are looking for a better understanding of the dynamics of human survival as practiced by humans, consciously and subconsciously, it is all the more reasonable to look for analogies in the fields of human psychology, sociobiology and evolutionary ecology.

The Individual Identity 

In spite of the variety of cultural backgrounds, varying schools of human psychology and terminologies, there is a two-fold function of what we are calling individual identity. First is the creation, modification and maintenance of definitions of what the entities in existence are that make up that individual and the entities in existence that are not a part of that individual, in terms of mental stories. Second is the creation, modification and maintenance of mental stories that reason out that the individual is worthy enough to exist and not disappear out of existence — in short, the individual is worthy enough to ensure its survival. These two functions endow the individual with the psychological need to survive and avoid death, sometimes at the cost of obliterating entities that are not part of the individual. The corollary is that the survival of entities, that are a part of the mental stories defining the individual identity, are also to be ensured by the individual. 

 

So, if an individual stakeholder of a human organisation such as an investor, employee or a customer, has a story which makes that organisation a part of his/her individual identity and that story is positive enough to increase the net value of his/her self worth, then the individual’s instinct for survival extends to ensure the organisation’s survival too. Such individuals make up the investors who are willing to take bigger investment risks, employees who are willing to work beyond what’s expected of them and customers who buy products that they don’t really need — acts which, though difficult to explain by logic, ensure the organisation’s survival through a crisis. 

 

The positiveness or the negativeness of these mental stories are determined by the quantum of value added to or eroded from the individual’s perceived net worth respectively. 

 

The source of the stories that integrate the organisation identity and the individual identity come from the commonalities of their ‘intents’ and the nature of the ‘relationships’ between them.

Intents

While studying the organisational life forms in order to derive insights for questioning whether an organisation like a corporation, an administrative body or a not-for-profit will survive, we must enter  into the domain of sociobiology — a domain that lies at the intersection of psychology of organisational behaviour (that we merely touched upon in the previous section) and evolutionary ecology (that we will touch upon in the next section about relationships). This is where the mere animal instincts, individual survival programming and amoral biological need for relationships to ensure survival, get integrated with the introduction of Morality — a recognisable dynamic that is closer to the way things work among humans as opposed to other living beings.


From the crystallisation of abstract moral concepts, come intents (like the Ten Commandments or constitutional Bill of Rights) that can define a value system to measure the worth of existence of an entity, its relationships and decisions. In the context of uncertainties, introduced by crisis without precedents, it is these intents that act as a guiding compass to choose one story over another to assimilate into the individual identity or choose to enter into one relationship at the risk of losing another. In short, to prefer one decision over a spectrum of available decisions. More often than not, crisis also acts as a litmus test for intents. The feedback from crisis situations usually causes organisations to make temporary or permanent change to their intents. Such changes are always made with the view of treating survival as the primary intent. Much insight about organisations survival can be gathered from studying the changing intents and the observed outcomes.

Relationships

At any point in time, complex systems are in a work-in-progress stage of evolution. Falling back on the analogy of living things, in biological evolution, crisis is one of the tools in the hands of evolution that selects species that are capable of adaptation to dramatic changes in the species’ ecology. Though major extinction triggers, such as floods, basalt volcanic eruptions, global cooling or asteroid impacts, can cause the death of many individual animals directly, the majority of species go extinct over a period of thousands of years due to the collapse of their food chain triggered by the actual event. Species that survive such extinction events are the ones whose food chains are least affected, ones which are capable of establishing themselves in alternate food chains through migration or adaptation. A food chain in itself is a complex system. Its building blocks are six types of simple symbiotic relationships, a good analogy for organisational and individual relationships among humans.

Type of Relationship Description 

Mutualism A relationship between two entities in which the probability of survival of both the entities is increased. 

Parasitism A relationship between two entities in which the probability of survival of one entity increases whereas the other’s decreases. 

Commensalism A relationship between two entities in which the probability of survival of one entity increases whereas
the other’s remains unaffected. 

Amensalism A relationship between two entities in which the probability of survival of one entity decreases whereas the other’s remains unaffected. 

Neutralism A relationship between two entities in which the probability of survival of both the entities remain unaffected. 

Competition A relationship between two entities in which the probability of survival of both the entities decrease.

In a complex system of human organisations, the survival of an organisation is proportional to the net total of the probabilities contributed by all the past, present and potential relationships it has with other entities.

Decisions

Decisions are thoughts, which were generated and gestated in the abstract world of the mind, being birthed into the real world. A decision is as concrete as a thought can get. Its next transformation is its appearance in the physical world as actions. Actions in the physical world need a physical direction of movement. That direction is provided by a vision. A vision is an imagined state of future reality that can inspire decisions and actions. Some decisions metamorphose into actions while others die in the process due to unsupported internal and external environmental conditions which are made up of a multitude of identities, intents, visions and relationships. One of the most reasonable ways to classify decisions would be:

Type of Decision Description 

Enforcer Decisions Decisions which make sure that actions stay on the shortest path towards the existing vision. The focus is on moving forward towards
the vision. 

Diverter Decisions Decisions which result in realising any vision other than the originally intended one. The focus is on moving towards another vision. 

Accelerator Decisions Decisions made to realise the original vision with lesser people, cost or time. The focus is on the economy of resource consumption. 

Decelerator Decisions Decisions that are made to wait for a higher degree of certainty from feedbacks before making an enforcer, accelerator or a diverter decision. The focus is on avoiding risks.

The individual identities, intents, visions, relationships and the crisis make up the football field where the game of survival is played. Decisions and actions constitute the passes of the ball by individual players who identify themselves with a team (identity). Players aid their team in taking the ball towards the opposite team’s goal (vision). They also decide and act to reduce the chances of the opposite team gaining possession of the ball and increase the chances of their own team gaining and retaining the possession of the ball (relationships) . All this is done by keeping in mind that at best, they have won the game or, at worst, not lose the game when the final whistle blows while always trying their best to play fair to the rules of the game(Intents). A crisis which brings a team almost face to face with defeat, may change the priority of the intents. Some team members might lose hope and winning is no more one of the intents. Some team members might not lose the intent to win but give up the intent to play fair. Some team members may end up caring about neither winning nor playing fair. With the change of intents, their relationships with their own team members, the opposition team, the audience and the referees might also fluctuate. 

 

In the real world of human organisations, the field is complex with multiple teams with multiple players with multiple identities trying to reach for multiple goal posts.

The Framework and the Questions

In a complex system such as an organisation, the sum total of the most resilient intents in the collective mind of all its individuals, qualify for adoption, as the organisation’s intents — its raison d'être. When this union of individual intents and the system’s intents materialises, then the sub-systems, that enable navigating towards the visions of the world born out of such intents, survive. The sub-systems, which churn out decisions that cannot achieve a symbiotic balance with the most resilient intents of the system, position themselves among neutralistic relationships or at the endangered side of amensalic and parasitic relationships. Individual identities, intents and relationships are components of this framework that cannot be observed directly. They are entities that can only be inferred based on the observation and feedback from the other components. Actions and outcomes of those actions are the observable components of the framework. Decisions are components that are sometimes observable but sometimes need to be inferred. 

 

Let's consider an organisation under study as a sub-system (let’s call it A), that is a part of the super-system B. A has a multitude of symbiotic relationships with other sub-systems within B. The most resilient intents among all sub-systems of B contribute to the intents of B. A crisis for sub-system A is a sudden and unpredictable set of changes in the intents of a large number of other sub-systems of B to such an extent that the intent of B changes in a way that pushes the survival of sub-system A into uncertainty. 

 

Hence, in a prospective study, to predict if an organisation (like sub-system A) can survive the COVID 19 crisis or not or how figure out a way for the organisation to survive this crisis, some of the questions (not an exhaustive list) that can give worthy insights are: 

  • What proportion of the individual stakeholders that make up the organisation have positively reinforced the organisation as part of their identity? 

  • What are the most resilient individual intents that are currently existing among the organization? 

  • How to measure this resilience? 

  • What are the new intents of the super-systems? (country, humanity, economic bodies, etc)

  • How can changes in the intents of other organisations be predicted from observing their decisions, actions and their outcomes? 

  • What is the kind of relationships the organisation has with other organisations and which of those other organisations are actively undergoing transformation of their intents, visions and relationships?

The Helping Hand of Assumptions

Assumptions are a very effective helping hand as long as one is completely aware, all throughout the process of analysis, that it is an assumption and not mistake it for reality. 

 

Though complex systems are not clockworks, they help us to move forward by assuming they are so. It helps us to come up with a workable framework. The inspiration for this technique is from the field of complex algebra in Mathematics. Just by assuming that an imaginary number called ‘i’, with a value that equals the square root of -1, exists in the real world, it has helped in wrapping one’s head around complex and counter intuitive observations of the real world and solving equations of quantum mechanics and general theory of relativity, that explains them.

 

During the process of building this framework, it is natural to encounter situations in which one must choose between contradictory components (such as attributing two contradicting intents to the same entity). In order to avoid conflict among the stakeholders or indecision due to lack of data in such situations, a good way forward would be to assume that both entities can co-exist but with different probabilities. No value needs to be attributed to these probabilities. If required, we can just model using descriptive values like high, medium and low. The inspiration for this technique comes from the field of quantum physics. According to which, every entity in reality exists at all times, at all places throughout the universe as probabilities. And the act of observation of an entity at a particular time and place just collapses all other probabilities of existence in all other times and other places to zero. 

 

Lastly, it is always safe (and wise) to assume that identities, intents, relationships and visions can change over time. We need to allow room for them. Because, if they can, they will change.

Punitha D. Balamurugan

Mysuru, KA, India

6 June 2020

What proportion of the individual stakeholders that make up the organisation have positively reinforced the organisation as part of their identity?

In a complex system of human organisations, the survival of an organisation is proportional to the net total of the probabilities contributed by all the past, present and potential relationships it has with other entities.