Corona Conversations #1: “But he hasn’t got anything on,” a little virus said.

 7 min read

This is the first of three articles originally published on Medium.com in connection with the public Corona Conversations in April and May 2020 by Dr Steve Ellis and myself tackling sense- and decision-making, agency and collaboration in the post-pandemic world. 

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LIKE the little boy in the H.C. Andersen story, the Coronavirus has made plain the shortcomings in our systems’ ability to deal with organically developing hyper-complex challenges. So, how do we reconsider the paradigms that have so far defined our responses?

[Original registration on bit.ly/coronaconversations].

Stating the obvious, it is crystal clear that the vast majority of organisations, governments and corporations do not have effective contingency plans in place to cope with this type of crisis, despite probably having lengthy and well visited risk registers. Case in point is the UK Government’s failure to revise its plans to manage a corona-type pandemic, in spite of these plans having been tested and found wanting four years ago.* So, while some may still believe that the impact will be fleeting and we will go back to pre-virus normality sooner or later, the authors of this article ask: “Is going back to normal really what we want?”

…the seriousness and urgency of the pandemic has unmasked a far greater threat to civilisation than the virus itself: the utterly inappropriate approaches with which we for decades have tried to cope …

It’s a VUCA world

Obviously, looking from the senior/strategic level, scenarios urgently need to be thought through in the next few weeks and months to develop an appropriate recovery plan. But if we have learned anything from this crisis, we now know that the routine quest for accuracy and a neatly budgeted pathway of cause and effect is probably the first thing that needs to be rejected. We are well and truly in a VUCA world, a phrase originally coined by the US Army War College to describe the Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity of globalised modernity, for want of a better word. No single individual, specific group of experts, or even global organisations specialising in epidemics, economics, or any other science, hold all the answers, let alone the answer, likely because the answer does not exist.

Like the virus itself, the situation is a living organism with its own hyper-complex dynamics and any attempt to bludgeon it into submission with a stagnant methodology fixed on an end-goal can instantly change the swirling patterns of events into new, unforeseen problems. For example, with so many societal norms and behavioural changes imposed and adopted, many are now proposing that any strategic plan should aim more within ‘boundaries’, as opposed to closely prescribed destinations. (See Fig. 1)

Fig. 1

The rash that warns of imminent organ failure

But, as we have seen so clearly these past few weeks, those boundaries of uncertainty that are to guide our preparations seem to be very elastic indeed, and furtively many have long held the view that five year plans are more a leadership fantasy than a sound planning process. It is here the seriousness and urgency of the coronavirus pandemic has unmasked a far greater threat to civilisation than the virus itself: the utterly inappropriate approaches with which we for decades have tried to cope with a world that has been VUCA way before Covid-19.

…we do not even know that we are squinting at an infinitesimal fragment inside a swirling kaleidoscope where cause and effect have long since passed through Alice’s looking glass…

We can pick a range of sectors outside government to exemplify this malady. As two education professionals, we need look no further than our own backyard: our sector comes across as an absolute omni-shamble producing a big group of young people with blatant incompetence in terms of core skills and significant mental health issues — yet each new clever solution seems only to aggravate the problems.

The point is that the existential threat we are facing is entirely of our own making, and it is not the coronavirus. Rather, it is the authors’ contention that the coronavirus is more akin to the little boy in the H.C. Andersen story warning us that the Emperor wears no clothes. It is driving home the point that our species simply don’t have the sense-making and decision-making or even the basic management tools to live in the hyper-complexity posed by today’s interconnected world, and that we now need to sort that out or pay dearly. This applies to equally to education, as it does finance, governments, interest groups, societies, communities, media, and corporations. And, we can forget a vain hope of cleaning up our own sector: as a blind butterfly flutters its wings in finance or media, a typhoon is created in governments and education.

Fig. 2 The four domains of Snowden’s famous Cynefin Framework with examples from the corona pandemic.

If you imagine that Chaotic and Complex in Snowden’s famous Cynefin framework broke free and had a child, and you are not even close to the situation we actually face every day in every sector, every government every business, every area of knowledge. And yet, we all muddle along inside the same paradigm of applying more technology and technique to what we perceive as “the problem” because we do not even know that we are squinting at an infinitesimal fragment inside a swirling kaleidoscope where cause and effect have long since passed through Alice’s looking glass. We should learn from the havoc and suffering caused by the current pandemic by seizing the opportunity to take a painful look at the naked body of human existence at the dawn of the new millennium to perhaps discover the emperor needs a humbler, more suitable and more organic set of clothes.

The CoCreative Conference

We do not claim to have any magic bullets or instant answers. It is blatantly clear that no spicy soundbites will save this particular situation. Nor do we try to point the blame at specific individuals, groups or organisations; our suggestion is rather that we are all equally victims, caught in a spider’s web of systemic problems which run so deep or are so comprehensive they are, like the virus itself, invisible. Therefore, we propose an honest and explorative — and, above all, civilized — conversation between people with wildly mixed professional backgrounds, political convictions, and personal world-views, who are ready to learn, to contribute and even to potentially change their minds about some of their own assumptions. In this context, listening is as treasured as talking. We have tentatively dubbed these multi-noded public conversations CoCreative Conferences. We expect the first one to branch out into a range of sub-topics which may then run in parallel with multiple other simultaneous conferences, further splitting as needed, occasionally to be merged back into each other to bring new angles and a new awareness to the collective table. By striking a careful balance of power between self-organising learning networks and an overarching, guiding framework can we perhaps bring about a conversation that is both profound in nature and yet nimbly responsive to both its own inner dynamics and the emerging situation.

…harness the power of free conversation to log new knowledge as it is generated and then facilitate the agency that gives such conversations meaning in terms of impacting the real world…

In appreciation of the low bandwidth (technically and intellectually) of contemporary social media, we recognise such forums need a new platform. Here, we wish to draw the reader’s attention to the recent successful experiments with virtual Knowledge Cafés by conversational leadership specialist David Gurteen. Using conventional Zoom software, David has recently demonstrated that it is possible to facilitate a remarkably convincing virtual conference experience, replete with random allocation to breakout rooms and shared whiteboards.

We are grateful to David for his offer to provide technical support with what we hope to be the first of these experimental online conferences, sparked by this and similar articles. Paying heed to Chris Collins’s recent warnings about the debilitating failure to learn from otherwise capable knowledge production, we aim to run these conferences in a more structured way than the traditional Knowledge Café, in the hope that we may harness the power of free conversation to log new knowledge as it is generated and then facilitate the agency that gives such conversations meaning in terms of impacting the real world in a positive manner.

We are proud to say we don’t have all the details of this endeavour in place. Rather, our belief is that if we work together to find new ways to communicate and collaborate, honestly sharing and generating insights, nimbly making and applying decisions, our shared humanity will come out of this crisis stronger.

With a nod to their microscopic instigator, this first series of pilot conferences have been dubbed The Corona Conversations. Follow this link to register your interest in participating in the first conference, where you will be a part of defining the very concept of CoCreative Conferencing.

Original Registration on bit.ly/coronaconversations

Share the invitation on Twitter

About Dr Stephen Ellis

About Jakob Werdelin

Further reading


werdelin.co.uk is the business end of cooperativelearning.works.


*) Harry Lambert, Government documents show no planning for ventilators in the event of a pandemic, New Statesman, 16 March 2020. https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/health/2020/03/government-documents-show-no-planning-ventilators-event-pandemic (accessed 27 March 2020)

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