Corona Virus: A Prime Example Of A Wicked Mess

As one of the principal founders of the modern field of Crisis Management and a lifelong practitioner of Systems Thinking, I’ve been studying and researching large-scale systems crises for nearly 40 years. The Coronavirus is one of the worst crises in every sense. Unfortunately, except for the palpable connection between the virus and the financial markets, all of the other important connections have not been given the serious attention they demand. Worst of all, they have not been considered as a whole given that they interact in strange and unpredictable ways.

One of the worst aspects of the crisis is that whereas the pandemic is a full-blown crisis to doctors, it’s a “hoax” to conservative talk-show hosts. Unfortunately, denial and obfuscation are major parts of nearly all crises.

A constellation of factors are part and parcel of the pandemic. First and foremost is the failure of the authoritarian government of China to curb the practice of selling the infected meat of animals in close proximity to humans thus making the deadly virus all-too-likely. The Chinese government also failed to acknowledge the existence of the virus and thus did not act swiftly to contain it, thereby resurfacing underlying xenophobic fears And, we have created a financial system that is easily disrupted. In addition, the U.S. economy is largely service-based so that it’s especially at risk if large numbers of people stop going out to shop, attend public gatherings, etc. We have a Public Health system that has been seriously hampered by a President who is woefully ignorant of science, and who has repeatedly lied so that when he needed to be believed, he had no credibility. Add to this a long, drawn-out, nasty contest between the Democrats as to whom is best positioned to replace a President who is not only completely unfit for the job, but exhibits daily growing signs of serious mental disturbance, which only adds to the crisis. And of course, vulnerable populations and the closing of schools only add to widespread fear.
In short, we’re dealing with nothing less than a Wicked Mess.

The late distinguished Social Systems Thinker Russell L. Ackoff appropriated the word Mess to stand for a whole system of problems that were so interconnected such that one couldn’t take any single problem out of the Mess and attempt to analyze and treat it on its own without doing irreparable damage both to the problem and the entire Mess. In short, the interconnections between the problems that constituted a Mess were as important as the so-called “individual problems.” In fact, the notion of “self-standing, independent problems” was an outdated and harmful figure of speech. It does not represent in any way the reality with we are struggling to deal.

The notion of “Wicked Problems” for which none of the academic disciplines or professions has the final say in defining the problem, let alone in how to treat it, only adds to the Mess.

The result is that all of the problems of modern societies are Wicked Messes. For instance, Homelessness is a host of interrelated problems. Thus, Income Inequality, Drug Addiction, Mental Illness, a Poor Housing Market, and Low Paying Jobs are all integral parts of the “Homelessness Mess.” If this wasn’t complicated enough, all Wicked Messes are parts of one another. Given that the that the homeless are especially vulnerable to the virus, Homelessness and the Global Pandemic are heavily interconnected.

Unlike simple exercises, which unfortunately constitute the bulk of traditional education, Wicked Messes do not have single, exact solutions, let alone stable ones. We only cope with them as best we can. Thus far, our coping mechanisms have been less than adequate, indeed almost criminal.

Yes, we need to attack each of the major factors as vigorously as we can. But even more, we desperately need leaders who understand that we are dealing with a Wicked Mess so that we can cope with it as it really is.

Sadly, no one to my knowledge has exerted the kind of leadership that is required to deal with Wicked Messes. If we learn anything from the Coronavirus, my hope is that we will learn how to cope better with the next Wicked Messes.

About imitroff

Dr. Ian Mitroff is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is the president and founder of Mitroff Crisis Management, a private consulting firm based in Oakland, California, that specializes in the treatment of human-caused crises. He is a Senior Affiliate with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
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