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Managing the Flow of Ideas in a Pandemic

Tools and tactics for maximizing effective communication and decision-making while minimizing the spread of illness

Source | | Alex “Sandy” Pentland

Most organizations are hierarchical or centralized, so their senior leaders are at the center. All roads lead to them. The leaders are typically older and have more health conditions. During a pandemic, like the one we now face with COVID-19, standard organizational structures are a management disaster in the making — because the senior people are likely to be the hardest hit.

We’ve all learned about the value of social distancing in reducing the spread of infection. In the workplace, physical separation often means going virtual, and we have plenty of tools for that. But given that ideas and decision-making flow primarily to and from the central (senior) people, the essential work of preventing the spread of illness can pose risks to the also essential work of running an organization. That’s true in part because informal conversations (such as ad hoc chats in hallways or while getting coffee) account for about half of decision quality. So if we try to rely on the usual flows of ideas and decisions in a primarily virtual arena, quality can degrade. It’s a wicked problem with no simple solution.

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