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Character in times of COVID-19

It has been an unprecedented week. We have been aware of the danger for some time now and have been moving in the lower gears, waiting, watching, anticipating a little, going through the BCP, changing to top gear – enabling tech and infra set-up, prepping teams, actively engaging with clients, reviewing, micro-managing, shoring up finances, securing colleagues, endless calls, multiple scenarios…phew! I must admit, this is one of the very few times where I have on occasions, felt helpless! The PMs speech on Thursday, March 19 was certainly a precursor of things to come but after that things just fell apart globally.
It’s very easy, in hindsight, to praise or criticise various governments but the sheer magnitude of the problem has been overwhelming. In my opinion, humanity, all experts and global leaders have collectively failed to foresee the scale of the problem and take measures that could have protected the majority of people. Every large country has a federal structure, but apparently, the world as one entity does not! Even though more than 180 countries on last count have been hit, there is still no calibrated and coordinated global response. If there is one lesson, we need to take from this crisis it is that – countries cannot just pledge to protect their own citizens, it has to protect the entire humanity. There was a choice to be made between national isolation and global collaboration. The world made the wrong choice. Maybe closed-door efforts and diplomacy channels are working overtime, but no citizen across the world saw any of it, at least not yet and now it is too late. The stories I hear from Europe are heart wrenching. Just shows, massive massive lack of foresight, failure of planning, abrogation of duty, inability to take tough calls, lack of communication and aligning people, and compromising the future for short term economic gains.
When we get out of this on the other side of the pandemic, we can be rest assured that the world would have pretty much changed, forever. Businesses when they are taking difficult and hard calls need to take cognisance of what precedents they will set for the future. Because history has repeatedly shown us that short term decisions pretty much become the norm for the long term. A bad example but nevertheless an accurate one, in politics, is Article 370 (how a temporary provision endured for 70 years). That’s the nature of decision making. A decision is a decision – short term or long term that only time and circumstances decide. However, what leaders can always do is, to take the right decision in the first place. This is the biggest global crisis that my generation has ever faced. It will redefine business, economics, politics, culture, healthcare, personal relationships, value systems, in short it will lead to a huge upheaval and the human race will basically have to rewire itself. We are all looking at uncertainty for quite some time to come but some questions and decisions that will be character defining are staring at us:
Business: What is the future of our business? Do we need to repurpose? Can we do business differently? How do we relook at our business model? How do we build a more sustainable business? How do we drive greater value? Decisions that have been dragged for years can look like obvious and instant choices right now. Leaders with courage and conviction will make their move now.
Process: How do we relook at Business Continuity Plans? Are some processes even relevant? How do we reduce overheads? How do we optimise resources and drive efficiencies?
People: How humanely will we treat our people? How will we retain their confidence? How will we enable their success? How will we reskill teams?
Technology: How do we leverage technology effectively? How do we use technology to drive new business models? How do we innovate and change the way we work?
Data: Look at the calibrated relief response from Canada for businesses. The Government could do it because their data is very well organised and accurate. They are actually able to provide specific relief to different sections of society without them having to ask for it or having to move a finger. That is the power of data.


China’s response in controlling the outbreak is also data led. They did it by monitoring smart phones, using millions of facial recognition cameras, getting people to report their body temperatures, apps sharing info of infected people and many more such covert and overt surveillance measures. In India, we are unable to provide even basic financial relief to specific sections of society and businesses because our data is unorganised, incomplete and inaccurate. Direct Benefit Transfer, Jan Dhan Yojana and such initiatives have helped but we are nowhere close to many other countries. That’s why millions of people are out on the streets because they have no help. The key question for businesses is – How to organize data better? How to fast track data driven decisions? How to empower people directly interacting with customers with data?
The future of work is here. Businesses were calibrating their response for it over the last few years at a somewhat languid pace. The current pandemic has pressed the fast-forward button. It is time to reflect. Very soon there will be difficult choices and decisions to make. Let your character make the decision. Because, rest assured, you will be judged. Many reputations will be built, and an equal number will be destroyed. Which side of the coin will you be on? On a lighter note, a popular Salman Khan song comes to mind – “Main karoon toh saala character dheela hain….”. God speed and forward always!

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