In many ways Australia has responded excellently to COVID-19. There have been some notable demonstrations of agile responses, innovation in development, and an awareness that we need to do things differently. And ordinary Australians have stepped up, working around the clock tracing contacts, popping up soup kitchens, offering financial support to those who’ve lost their jobs and turning up for their jab when they’re eligible for the COVID vaccine.
But many of those same Australians are also currently scratching their heads at what seem like common sense errors in planning. We knew there would be another outbreak, so why were we not vaccinating disability care residents and aged care workers against COVID at the same time as we vaccinated aged care residents? Why was Victoria’s Vaccination Registration and Administration Solution platform not ready to go when we needed it most? And why are many Australians not using the QR codes at retail outlets across the country?
So, what are we doing wrong? There are reams of leadership manuals written about our need to get better at leading through the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity that we’re now experiencing firsthand. And they’re right.
Our bureaucratic systems are built for the predictable needs of a population –constructing new hospitals or airports, incrementally adapting an educational curriculum, or reviewing the minimum wage – needs that are based on long planning lead-ins, heavy bureaucratic structures with many levels of sign-off, and concentrated power and decision-making.
In contrast, successfully responding to volatile situations such as we are facing now requires adaptive leadership and an openness to real reform. The hallmarks of such leadership include the ability to take a step back, look ahead and anticipate what might come next; building collective understanding and support for action, including accountability and maximum transparency in decision making; and conducting rapid experiments, gathering feedback and using it to adjust and adapt.
It’s well known that one of the main reasons Kodak went out of business was its inability to see digital photography as a true disruption to the field of photography, instead clinging to the view that it was just one more element of business as usual. We can’t afford that failure when it comes to the health and wellbeing of our population.
So, what would adaptive leadership in face of COVID-19 look like? We would be going to all the experts, including those who live and breathe the problems at hand, harnessing extra resources to get the job done, and engaging broader support for the actions that must be taken. We would be open to testing new ways of responding and working quickly to expand or contract them once we saw whether or not they were working.
Imagine if we invited aged care workers to design a vaccine rollout plan to reach them quickly and efficiently. Or if we asked those businesses currently experiencing QR code complacency to design a system that would enable maximum reach and use by customers. What if we engaged a wide range of community groups to design vaccination messages tailored to their contexts and communities?
It feels messy and unpredictable to those of us brought up under current bureaucratic structures, but the evidence tells us we’d likely get a range of effective solutions – supported by those who have to administer them – rolled out rapidly and widely. As long as we have the right feedback and communication mechanisms in place, we can be confident that our response would remain co-ordinated and effective.
The implementation this week of disability-specific vaccination hubs is an illustration of this way of working. Built on shared responsibility and experience these hubs have the potential to roll out vaccinations quickly and effectively to those who should have received them months ago. In addition to funding these hubs, government’s role needs to be in supporting review, adaptation and further roll out.
In health there is much talk of ‘listening and learning’ health systems to drive more rapid improvements in how we design and deliver care. We need to encourage our bureaucracies to also become listening and learning systems if we are to provide a rapid, effective response to COVID-19, one that addresses more than one issue at a time and is tailored to differing needs and contexts.