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Coronavirus: Facing Difficult Decisions

As the coronavirus continues its path from Wuhan, China, spreading infection rates and fear, senior policymakers face difficult political decisions. They must decide whether to:

  1. Take aggressive action to stem the propagation of the virus and potentially suffer serious criticism for overreacting even if they acted correctly.
  2. Opt not to take dramatic and unpopular actions that in hindsight people cite as being necessary to quickly contain the spread of the deadly virus.
  3. Downplay the seriousness of the threat to avoid unduly alarming their constituents.

A decision, for example, to prohibit all flights from China could prevent valuable medicines from being shipped to a country where they suddenly are desperately needed. Similarly, closing schools or businesses could unduly disrupt normal productive activity.

When faced with difficult choices, I advise taking an hour to employ a Structured Analytic Technique like Premortem Analysis or reviewing a previous Structured Self-Critique to prevent a potentially calamitous decision.

With Premortem Analysis, the decision maker should ask: “If a month or so has passed, could my policy—and the rationale for it—be described as a spectacular mistake?” The technique works best right after the decision maker and his or her team reach consensus on the best approach to address the problem. The decision maker should then gather his or her team and say:

“Ok, we now think we have the right answer on how to proceed, but we need to double-check this. Imagine that we have announced this policy and in a couple months we would all agree it was a big mistake. Let’s brainstorm why the policy turned out to be so spectacularly wrong and what needs to be done now to avoid that mistake. Let’s start by looking at the reasons we are listing to justify our decision.”

Participants should be encouraged to look at the situation from a variety of perspectives including the general population, hospitals, transportation disruptions, the impact on commerce, and even financial services.

Ideally, in previous months or years, some analysts would have already conducted a Structured Self Critique exercise—harvesting lessons learned from past outbreaks including the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak and the 2009 H1N1 influenza virus to identify past mistakes and discover near misses that decision makers should avoid making again.

Learn more about Premortem Analysis and the Structured Self-Critique, in the newly published 3rd edition of Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis. It showcases 66 techniques—including 9 new ones—organized into six families that track with the analytic production process.

Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis, 3rd ed.