Reflecting on COVID-19: Blame Game or Learning Opportunity?

COVID-19 won’t be our last pandemic. More than a year in, it still rages. Individuals and institutions have developed many ways to cope with all the challenges — some successful, some not so much. Vaccine development was astonishingly fast, but vaccine deployment has been riddled with inefficiencies, inequities, and confusion. In my own state, finding a vaccination appointment — or even learning how to look for one — has been a terrific challenge. It could have been handled so much better.

This global disaster has triggered recriminations for the inadequate preparedness and chaotic responses, but simply placing blame isn’t helpful. We need to learn from our collective experiences so we can better handle the next crisis. We don’t want to climb all the same painful learning curves again.

This pandemic offers a great learning opportunity. The best way to learn from experience is through a retrospective, a systematic and objective investigation of what actually happened and what it tells us for the future. We need to perform retrospectives at multiple levels:

  • Family
  • Company and other organization
  • City
  • County
  • State
  • National and across-state
  • International

You needn’t wait until the end of the crisis to learn. Hold retrospectives now to reflect on how well you’re handling things so far. Learning fast and well will help us all to deal better.

What’s a Retrospective?

A retrospective is about bringing a community together to build a complete story of the event, so everyone knows what happened beyond their own viewpoint. The retrospective lets you gather wisdom from experience and then decide where to go from here.

An effective retrospective takes a fact-based approach to understand the events that took place, decisions that were made, and their positive and negative outcomes. A strong emotional component overlays the cold facts of such a dramatic — and traumatic — occurrence.

A valuable reference for such activities is the book Project Retrospectives: A Handbook for Team Reviews by Norman L. Kerth. A pandemic isn’t a planned project, but it triggered many quick-response projects to cope with it. To keep the retrospective focused on the retelling of the story and learning from it, keep in mind Kerth’s Prime Directive:

Regardless of what we discover, we must understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job he or she could, given what was known at the time, his or her skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.

How to Retrospect

One effective retrospective technique is to build a timeline of key events. The timeline is part of the retelling of the experience. Invite all the participants to contribute pieces to the timeline to build a rich picture of what happened from multiple perspectives. Kerth’s book describes techniques for approaching this and the other steps in a retrospective.

The timeline will help you see where people took smart actions at the right time. It could also reveal where vital actions could — and should — have been taken but were not because of inadequate knowledge, supplies, resources, communication, or decision-making. Time is of the essence in an epidemic. Both hesitant responses hasty, misguided responses can make matters far worse. The timeline helps make all this visible.

After retelling the experience story, the retrospective group gathers the lessons learned by answering these four questions:

  1. What went well? (Record what you discovered along the way that worked.)
  2. What could have gone better? (We must be ready to do something different next time.)
  3. What happened that surprised us? (These might be risks to try to manage in the future.)
  4. What do we not yet understand? (Those issues require further research.)

Bad situations and mistakes provide the most powerful learnings — provided you’re willing to dive into them honestly — but start by remembering things you did well. Feel good about what you accomplished together during this stressful period, without exaggeration or boasting.

Government agencies, leaders, and larger organizations should hold formal retrospectives about how they’ve responded to COVID-19. These events aren’t free. They require planning, participant time, a neutral facilitator, and follow-up. The managers involved should not lead the retrospective. They’re participants in the shared experience and have an important piece to add to the collective story.

A retrospective is an investment in the organization’s ability to respond quickly and effectively to future crises. Many organizations did exactly this after 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina to improve their ability to function during an emergency. It’s time to do it again. Write down what you learn, create procedure books, and develop standards and guidelines, so that the next pandemic response is faster, smoother, and more effective. The cost of recording knowledge is small compared to the cost of acquiring that knowledge.

Families and small organizations don’t need a formal retrospective, but it’s worth meeting as a group to discuss how things went and how to prepare for the next crisis. We never expect them to come, but they do, be they weather events, earthquakes and other natural disasters, military conflicts, or health matters.

Think of your emergency plan like insurance: if you never need to put it into action, that’s good news.

Action or Inaction: Your Choice

It’s one thing to identify things we didn’t do well that might have produced a better outcome. It’s another matter to do something about it. Each retrospective should produce a list of specific action items — some immediate, some near-term, some long-term — that could better prepare the organization for the next pandemic. By working through this activity as a group, the priorities become apparent at all levels of the community and embraced by its members.

You can’t work on everything at once, so prioritize your action items. Watch out for the trap of spending time on activities that might appear urgent but won’t contribute much to your desired outcomes. But do something! An action plan that doesn’t turn into action is useless.

COVID-19 offered more surprises and unintended consequences than anyone could have anticipated. No amount of planning or lessons learned can ensure that everyone will know exactly how to handle the next crisis. However, we can — and must — do better the next time, in hundreds of ways large and small.

Let’s freely share what we learn with others. Governments and organizations of all kinds are all in the same boat, sharing the same challenges. They don’t have the time or money to learn every lesson and address every problem themselves. Be willing to share your best practices and insights with others, and be open to learning from them.

The alternative to performing retrospectives is little learning or — worse — false learning. When it comes to a pandemic, that lack of learning could be a literal death sentence.


Karl Wiegers is a software engineering and process improvement consultant and author. His most recent book is The Thoughtless Design of Everyday Things.

Author of 12 books on software, design, management, consulting, and a mystery novel. Guitars, wine, and military history fill the voids.

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