Black Swans and Grey Rhinos – Observations on Coronavirus and IT Ops During Crisis

As the Coronavirus crisis unfolds and all of us struggle to understand its implications and to adapt, many thoughts come to mind on many different levels – personal, business related, philosophical. This event is definitely a game changer, in the near future for sure – and many say in the long run as well.

One topic I’ve been seeing people talking about quite a bit is how the Coronavirus is a “Black Swan”, a term coined by the renowned economist Nassim Taleb that relates to an unforeseeable, outlier event that has extreme impact on us, and for which we will concoct irrelevant explanations after the fact. Personally, I lean more towards it being a “Grey Rhino”, a term introduced after the 2012 Greek financial crisis, which relates to a highly probable but neglected threat that has an enormous impact.

In the grand scheme of things, it would be nice to know whether we could have done something different to avert this disaster, or whether thinking about that is a futile exercise. But for now, I’ll leave that to others to worry about, as I focus on what we can do better to weather this storm, and perhaps learn from it moving forward, both in general, and as it relates to IT operations.

Visibility and Knowledge are Key
There’s a saying that “a known enemy is better than an unknown friend”. While I’m not necessarily sure I agree with this, I do know that the more you understand what you’re up against, the faster and more likely you’ll arrive at an effective solution. Visibility into the system is vital – just by looking at the different news channels across the world it has become abundantly clear that the difficulty in testing people for the virus on a wide scale has made it very hard to come up with the best course of action. If we had had true visibility into exactly how the virus spreads, containment would perhaps have been possible, and it would have helped us employ local measures, without the national shutdowns that are crippling economies around the world. So, while understanding why something happened is important in planning for the future, the availability of visibility as the event itself unfolds is imperative for successful remediation.

Siloes Can Kill
One thing has become very clear – siloed approaches just don’t work anymore. We are all collectively responsible for making ‘the system’ work, and need to share knowledge across the board in order to understand the big picture and deal with challenges in the best possible way. It may be difficult for us to change the way we were taught to live and work, and to share responsibility for something that is not directly in our realm, but if we do not embrace mutual responsibility and transparency, we are doomed to stumble in the dark every time something bad happens.

Flexibility is an Asset
“The only constant in life is change” said Heraclitus and, boy, was he right. Rapid change is the new normal in all walks of life, and those wanting to survive, let alone succeed, need to build their environments and their psyche to be able to quickly adapt to new realities. Long-term planning, system architectures, roles and processes all need to be based on the simple truth that we have brought our world to a place where a lifetime of advancements can be achieved in a single year, and that our exceedingly fast pace makes us extremely unstable. We need to be able to handle recurring meltdowns more than ever.

I am sure that we will ride out these difficult times and come out the other side eventually, stronger and more experienced. I hope we also take the opportunity to reflect on the way we live and work – and also come out smarter and better.