Coronavirus crisis communication: a wicked problem

In the workplace, we often face problems. They could derive from suppliers, employees, managers or customers. This is particularly evident in the hospitality industry where every day is met with new problems which we often refer to as challenges. Problems can be inclusive, i.e. ‘we’ve got a problem’ or accusatory, ‘you’ve got a problem’. Yet they can be dealt with by following SOPs or the rules and regulations the company has set up to deal with the different situations.

Coronavirus crisis communication: problem, crisis… or more?

Some problems take on a new level and become crises. Crises can derive from humans, i.e., a scandal within the company or a human error in the production line. Or, a crisis can be natural like a tsunami or a hurricane. In both cases, what may begin as ‘we’ve got a problem’ quickly escalates to ‘we’ve got a crisis’. A problem becomes a crisis when traditional SOPs and set guidelines cannot be applied. Rather, new solutions must be created. Crises do not have a clock, they are not bound by time. They often come in the middle of the night, on the weekend or during your holiday. They can be resource-intensive and they certainly demand a lot of attention from the stakeholders involved. Crises must be dealt with quickly and efficiently, and communication of these crises is primordial to protect the company’s reputation. Handle it well, the crisis disappears as quickly as it appeared; handle it poorly and your stakeholders will throw you under the bus. You could lose customers or shareholders; you would certainly ‘lose face’ and potentially see your reputation suffer which could, subsequently, result in a dip in profits. Yet, despite the risks and uncertainty, most companies still manage to survive the crisis.

The Coronavirus is not a problem nor a crisis. Coronavirus falls into the category of a ‘wicked problem’. The term ‘wicked problem’ was defined by Rittell and Webber back in 1973. There are ten criteria that can be applied to ascertain if a crisis can be place in the wicked problem category. Let’s apply them to the Coronavirus.

1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem.

While we have been able to give Coronavirus a name, we are no closer to understanding it now than in January. Scientists worldwide are working non-stop on testing and countries are competing to be the first to come up with a cure. This ‘healthy’ competition could be effective, yet the testing of cures takes time. In the beginning, there was no agreement on how it could be transmitted or what people needed to do to protect themselves. In the early days, most companies continued with ‘business as usual’, keeping their eyes on the unfolding events, but remaining confident it would be contained.

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule.

While most problems and crises have a clear starting place, there is also a moment when we consider the problem to be resolved or the crisis to be over. This is not the case with the Coronavirus. We have seen in China that the cases went down in March, but new cases are still arriving. No one is sure that it is over. More companies are closing each day, many town centers are empty; everyone wonders when it will go back to ‘normal’. Yet, even when the final cases are cured, the after-effects of this virus will continue to be felt.

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3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but good or bad.

When trying to deal with a wicked problem like Coronavirus, we have seen many countries and companies trying different solutions to beating it. However, none of these solutions can be proven as true or false; rather, they are good or bad. In reality, the solutions are better or worse. If we close our hotel, we protect our employees and potential customers, but we lose profits and put people on unemployment. And depending on the country, unemployment could become personal crises for employees already leading a precarious life, for example, employees that live month to month, struggling to pay their bills at the end of each month.

4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem.

With the Coronavirus, there is no immediate and sure test of a solution. We can already compare countries and companies in how they have reacted. Is everyone right? Is everyone wrong? At this point, the question should be ‘is everyone doing the best they can do under the circumstances?”

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one-shot’ operation. There is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly.

With no ultimate test and no past examples to compare with, each solution applied to Coronavirus is a ‘one-shot’ operation. There are no chances to test it and improve; there is only one possibility. Each attempt counts significantly. Working one meter from each other? Going to work if you can’t work from home? Washing your hands? Wearing masks? Each solution can be more or less effective. Quarantine and confinement have shown (tentatively) positive results in reducing the number of cases, but we cannot know if more or less would have controlled this uncontrollable virus.

6. Wicked problems do not have an exhaustively describable set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan.

Wicked problems have infinite solutions which sounds like a positive statement. However, as seen above, each solution is a one-step trial and cannot be immediately tested for its effectiveness. Imagine testing infinite solutions. This would be called a ‘mission impossible’.

7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique.

Coronavirus is a unique wicked problem. We have seen other health epidemics, but not one like this that has halted entire economies. On a business level, many experts have compared this to 2008. For the time being, it seems unlikely that it will be another 2008; rather, it seems it will be much worse. Think back to a time in this lifetime where industries (WORLDWIDE) were halted; where airplanes (ACROSS THE GLOBE) were grounded; where town centers were empty. At the present, we are within the wicked problem; all of the after-effects will continue for years to come.

8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem.

Coronavirus has shown other underlying problems such as the unpreparedness that countries and companies have to deal with this wicked problem. Companies have crisis plans and these plans evolve over time. When taken seriously, companies test their crisis plans periodically and spend time trying to proactively imagine the types of crises they could face to be better prepared when they come. In this particular case, no preparation could have been imagined. The wicked problem of Coronavirus could not have been imagined.

9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways.

Humans have a tendency to place blame on someone or something when faced with a wicked problem. It is in our DNA to want to have a reason for the crises we face. Yet, with Coronavirus, there are almost as many discrepancies as potential solutions. The rumors and fake news regarding how it is transmitted and who it affects have greatly contributed to these discrepancies. We’ve all seen students still partying on Spring Break; ‘joggers’ who have never run a day in their lives out on the streets; people defying the confinement rules. With no clear definition of the wicked problem itself and no proven guidelines to follow, no explanation can be offered.

10. The planner has no right to be wrong.

When dealing with a wicked problem, someone needs to be in charge. In the current situation, that is, first and foremost, the government officials. But in the workplace, that decision falls on the management. Stay open, but how do we protect our employees? Follow the guidelines, but does this ensure that the virus won’t spread? Keep customers a meter apart or reduce the amount of clients in a store at the same time? … the list is long. The added pressure links to the previous criteria: If a ‘bad’ choice is made, people could get sick and further spread the virus.

The Coronavirus is, indeed, the wickedest problem we have ever seen in the global workplace. We have no idea when it will end or what direction it will take. We do not know if we have done the ‘right’ thing or if we have been completely off base. We won’t have a chance for a ‘do-over’, each decision is our final one. But what we do know in these trying times is that we are doing the best we can!

Reference:

• Source: Rittell, H.W.J., & Webber, M.M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169.

This article was first published on Hospitality Insights.

About the author

With more than 20 years of international teaching experience, Laura Zizka, PhD, has been a faculty member at Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL) since 2002. As an Assistant Professor, she teaches Business Communication, Academic Writing, and Crisis/Strategic Communication to undergraduate and graduate students as well as coaching Student Business Projects and undergraduate theses. Since 2017, Dr. Zizka has begun teaching similar courses online in the Blended MBA (EHL).

Since completing her PhD in Management, Dr. Zizka has presented papers at education, hospitality, and management conferences and published papers on various communications topics linked to both higher education and the workplace. Her main research areas include communications, higher education, hospitality management, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths (STEM) education, and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)/sustainability actions, initiatives, and reporting. She is also interested in the gaps between higher education and the workplace.

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