Lessons learned from SARS


Good decision-makers are good information-gatherers, but in the end, they trust their gut.

When a few people were infected with SARS from skinning frogs alive or working among chicken carcasses, China might have contained the problem. Instead, China made a very bad decision to cover up the disease.

In hindsight, it's easy to say which problems are insane to try to cover up, and SARS turned out to be one of them. But don't be so smug that you cannot learn from China's mistake. After all, each of us struggles regularly with the choice to either ignore a problem or fix it.

In the face of a big problem, coming clean is usually the easiest thing to do. Covering up often requires a lie, and then another lie, and then, before you know it, you are talking about an alternate reality that even you cannot keep track of.

But day after day we have to decide if a problem is really big or just a minor blemish in an imperfect world. For example, software publishers always launch software with technical problems. Microsoft would have no products if they insisted on shipping problem-free software. The issue for a product manager is to decide if she's launching her product with problems so big that they will undermine sales.

In these instances, you must gather as much information as possible in a reasonable amount of time. But know that in the end, you will have to go with your gut.

The World Health Organization would have told China to quarantine. But China chose not to involve the WHO until it was too late. Microsoft engineers surely declared the company's server software too rife with security flaws to bring to market. But the product managers went with the product anyway, and frankly, Microsoft has made a mint off this server software. When weighing risk, Microsoft and China both, in the end, have to go with their instinct. But Microsoft does a more honest job of gathering facts to inform its decision.

For your own decision-making process, remember that people who feel powerful do not hide from the information that is available. When you take a calculated risk in the face of a significant problem, act like you are a powerful person — Gather as much information as possible and then trust your instinct.

Brian Arbetter, an employment lawyer at Baker & McKenzie, reports that clients started calling him as soon as the US media started reporting on SARS. This is because Arbetter's clients are big and rich (after all, Baker & McKenzie is expensive) and they feel powerful. Arbetter's clients feel like they have the ability to solve any problem that they can understand, so they call their lawyer to gather information.

Companies that dealt with SARS quickly and decisively are models for your own decision-making. Arbetter says many companies asked employees just back from Asia to stay home from work for ten days. At least one international company held a board meeting without members who live in Asia.

People who worry that a problem will crush them are more likely to hide from a problem and hope it goes away. So even if you don't really feel powerful, act like you do, and power might just come to you. Face problems head on. If you can't afford Arbetter, call a friend. Get advice, and then take action.

One more decision-making lesson from SARS: Be careful when you act selfishly. Sure, business is a game, and everyone is competing for market share. But you can't compete if no one shows up to play; we are all dependent on each other. Microsoft, for example, made a lot of money on server software, but Microsoft caused worldwide wrath when email exchange was brought to near halt due to lack of security on Micosoft's part. Both this example and the rapid spread of SARS remind us that we depend on each other to act ethically — to keep the interests of the community in mind.

That's a lot to balance when making a decision. Now you know why most of us start off our decision-making careers as copy machine technicians: Should the page be darker or lighter? Is it faster to hand-feed or automate? Think of these annoying entry-level questions are a warm-up for the SARS moment in your career. And then vow to make it a moment when you use your power to support community interests.

1 reply
  1. Lydia Bernard
    Lydia Bernard says:

    Enriching and informative, I wandered unknowingly here only to be transformed by a blanket of honest advice and truth.

    With Appreciation

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