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Leading in a crisis: How to learn from others


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By Allan McConnell (University of Sydney), Eric K. Stern (University at Albany (SUNY)), Arjen Boin (Leiden University)

The key challenge: learning on the fly

The devastating COVID-19 outbreak has created a new and common challenge for many governments: how to plan and implement a safe transition from lockdown conditions and reopen societies and economies. Jurisdictions are operating on their own, often with widely varying timelines. Some are still in the midst of the crisis, some are preparing to exit and some have already done just that. While some countries have never been formally locked down. These varying timelines and approaches collectively constitute a rich experience catalogue, but they also share the common purpose of finding a viable path back to normality. 

Authorities have a unique opportunity to learn from the experiences of others, avoiding pitfalls and failures, finding solutions and adopting practices that work.

In the COVID-19 crisis, cross-jurisdictional learning may yield valuable lessons including:

General strategic approaches: enforced comprehensive lockdown (China, New York and many other states in the US), versus selective measures relying primarily on citizen voluntary action (Sweden)
Procurement strategies and coordination mechanisms
Strategy, process and techniques for testing and tracing (national versus localised criteria for testing, pop-up testing labs, drive-thru testing labs, contact tracing through mobile phone apps)
Healthcare organisation, resources and capacity building (emergency building of new hospitals, for example: Wuhan, London; fast-tracking of new doctor/nurse recruits)
Stimulus and welfare packages (salary top-ups, welfare bonuses, tax breaks, bailouts for key industries)
Restrictions and closing down/opening up economies (comprehensive proactive shutdown versus targeted incremental closing/opening).

Learning from the COVID-19 experiences of others seems like an undeniably good idea. In the words of the late Aaron Wildavsky: “learning is a golden concept – everyone is for it”.

But policy learning is always more difficult than it might appear. Times of crisis produce special challenges (not least because the stakes are high, time is of the essence and uncertainty reigns). The response of every jurisdiction is multi-faceted, and encompasses everything from the strategic values they pursue and narratives they commmunicate, to the policy instruments and regulations they deploy.

Jurisdictions implement lessons learned in different ways, from major realignments to minor refinements. They include:

Fundamental strategic change in the direction of the response or recovery effort, for example: shifting from containment to mitigation (and hopefully back).
New legislation/policy requirements/guidelines
Changing organisational structures, process and procedures and infrastructure, for example: working from home measures, new crisis committees and upgrading ICT systems
Facilitating cultural and behavioural change, for example: deciding to publish scientific modelling, managing citizens’ risk perceptions and expectations via messaging campaigns.

Learning from others can be done and should be attempted, but it must be approached with great care. Learning doesn’t always mean actively emulating the approach or tactics pioneered by others; it can also mean consciously taking a different path. Furthermore, calculated inaction can also be a means of learning from others; seeing poor outcomes for others as warning signs to avoid replicating their mistakes and possibly ill-judged actions. We believe it is vital for governments to consider the potential pitfalls of crisis learning (as derived from the literature) and below is a set of suggestions that may be helpful in the quest for answers to the COVID-19 dilemmas.

Avoidable pitfalls

While everyone is in favour of learning, there is no universal gold standard or practical rule book for effective crisis learning. As we have noted, seeking to learn from the experiences of others – both near and far— can also pose serious risks. The following pitfalls are best avoided:

Paralysis: The complexity and interconnectedness of the shared experiences of hundreds of countries and jurisdictions – combined with their diverse approaches and response – is dizzying. There is a real danger of being paralysed by the sheer onslaught of potentially relevant insights. It may seem that for every new idea there is an experience elsewhere to support it and a counterexample to indicate that it is a bad idea.

For example, social distancing is voluntary in Sweden. Does that provide others with a quick exit scenario by turning orders into recommendations? Or does the voluntary model require very high levels of public trust and cultural distance already built into a society’s normal mode of functioning? Deep systematic thinking is required when choosing models to follow and shun.

Importing measures wholesale without sensitivity to the domestic context: What works (or does not work) elsewhere is not guaranteed to work (or not work) at ‘home’. Measures that succeed in one place may rely on peculiar local factors for their success, such as surplus health care sector capacity, citizens’ level of trust in government, the degree of fragmentation/unity in and centralisation/decentralisation of public institutions, levels of public sector funding, ICT capacities, relations with the private sector, demographics, cultural patterns of social interaction, housing, transportation and more. A poorly judged importation of measures from one jurisdiction to another can backfire, in the same way that we would make tragic decisions on blood transfusions if we automatically assumed that everyone had the same blood type.

Cherry-picking: If decision-makers simply use the ‘evidential’ experience of a select country/jurisdiction to legitimate what they are planning to do anyway, they are not actually learning from the experiences of others. They may increase the likely credibility of their proposed response, but without informed assessment of the base rates of success and failure, or thoughtful consideration of the benefits and pitfalls of the policy’s translatability.

Over-confidence in and exaggeration of benefits of a measure taken by others: In times when public anxieties are profound and lives and livelihoods hang in the balance, it can be tempting to cling to the positive experiences of others and oversell the benefits of how their approach can work for us, without regard for local context or the implementation risks involved. Government leaders should remember that citizens too learn from the experiences of others. Attentive citizens, concerned about the crisis and informed by mass and social media with a global reach will question and benchmark government responses. They are not naïve first-graders eager for their first lesson from the headmaster-in-chief and ready to take the government policy rationale as gospel.

The “not invented here” syndrome: The flip side of overconfidence in and overselling of an outside example is a stubborn mindset that ignores or defines itself against outside experience. This is the mindset that declares the most valuable lessons are best learned by you and your organisation alone. In a crisis, some leaders and quite a few experts cling to routine and familiar ways of working and established evidence bases. This mindset can not only lead to missed opportunities to learn but can also lead to “re-inventing the wheel.”

Caving in to “peer pressure”: 24-hour news cycles, commentaries and opinion on how others are performing, in areas such as the timing of reopening economies, can result in pressure to do the same, or do the opposite. Acting on such pressures may appease critics and be welcomed by those who seek hope amid darkness. But again, the risk of unintended consequences is huge, unless the local context is carefully taken into account and measures are appropriately calibrated and timed.

Learning as a technical exercise: policymakers and experts may adhere to evidence, priding themselves that they do not follow hunches. While an evidence-based approach may work in a routine setting where politicisation is low, ‘evidence’ has a different status in a highly charged crisis environment in which dilemmas are pressing and demand a political decision. Policy advisors who fail to realise that crisis management is inherently political – and that the political dimension looms larger when scientific uncertainty prevails – will likely see their good efforts to ‘learn responsibly’ go to waste. For maximum impact, expert learning must be communicated persuasively to non-expert decision-makers and ultimately to the public.

How to learn recommendations for benefiting from others’ experience

Finding our bearings and learning lessons in this chaotic, emotionally charged ‘living lab’ of global crisis experiences is served best by the following set of principles that we have drawn from the literature:

1. Local context matters

Evidence and experiences from elsewhere can bring useful insights and clues, but they should be treated as heuristic inputs and additional data points to inform problem-solving. Insights from afar should be filtered by an acute awareness of jurisdictional differences in culture, institutions, legal frameworks, policies, funding regimes, training capacities, socio-economic contexts, and other local constraints and possibilities. When seeking to learn lessons from other jurisdictions continually ask yourself: what are the potential benefits and risks for us here?

2. Translate rather than transplant

One size fits all, cookie-cutter approaches and wholesale adoption of measures from elsewhere rarely work. Instead, be selective and prepare to modify and adapt for local circumstances. Alert adaptation is likely to be a source of strength, as well as being of practical value in fighting the disease (or other parallel threats and hazards) and its consequences.

3. Cast a wide net, compare and benchmark

When looking abroad, use the variety of experiences to map out possible solutions to the problems currently in focus. Doing so is not only conducive to creative crisis problem-solving, but also a precondition for being able to make an informed choice from a mature set of alternatives. However, be aware that the optimal approach for your jurisdiction may not yet have been tried elsewhere and may need to be invented or crafted out of a combination of strategies and policies from other jurisdictions.

4. Probe apparent successes and failures when seeking lessons

Note that the immediate “hot wash” assessments coming out of other contexts may be selective caricatures driven by political narratives and limited data. Consider counterfactuals. If the policy intervention makes a positive difference ask why that was the case and what underlying conditions contributed to it. When a measure seems to have failed also ask why, and if failure was inevitable. Was it a potentially sound approach that failed due to poor preparation, planning implementation, or lack of fit with the local circumstances?

5. Ensure decision-making safeguards

Learning is a collective endeavour. While there may be little time, it is still wise to involve multiple voices and elicit alternative opinions. Decision-making forums should be diverse in composition and views, welcoming balanced critical deliberation that helps uncover risks and avoid overreactions/underreactions to new evidence. This will help in minimising the risk of being dragged down a crisis mismanagement route by charismatic and powerful leaders desperate for an answer, no matter the source of, or how thin, the evidence.

This article is part of ANZSOG’s Leading in a crisis  series which features the best research and thinking on crisis leadership as part of ANZSOG’s mission to lift the quality of government in Australia and New Zealand.

Public managers are dealing with a fast-changing global crisis and being forced to make difficult choices based on limited information.

The series explores crisis management, leadership and communications, particularly in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, and will put global expertise in the hands of public managers in Australia and New Zealand.

Previous articles have explored strategic crisis leadership, building a high performing team and organisational resilience in mega-crises.

Find out more about ANZSOG’s Leading in a crisis series webpage.


Dolowitz, D. P. and Marsh, D. ( 2000) ‘Learning from Abroad: The Role of Policy Transfer in Contemporary Policy-Making’, Governance, 13(1): 5-23.

Drennan, L.T., McConnell, A. and Stark, A. (2014) Risk and Crisis Management in the Public Sector, 2nd edition, Routledge: Abingdon.

Rose, R. (1993) Lesson-Drawing in Public Policy: A Guide to Learning Across Space and Time, New Jersey: Chatham House.

Stern, E. (2015) ‘Bridging the Learning Gap: From Theory to Practice’, in Schiffino, N. , Taskin, L. , Donis, C. and Raone, J. (eds) Organizing After Crisis: The Challenge of Learning, Peter Lang Publishers; Bern, pp. 257-278

Stern, E., ‘t Hart, P. and McConnell, A. (2020) Leading in a Crisis: How to Avoid Common Pitfalls and Build a High Performing Team, Canberra: ANZSOG, Paper 2: Leading in a Crisis series

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