Why you should be careful categorizing COVID-19
Thursday, June 18, 2020
Are you an immuner or a non-immuner? It is so tempting to think of this question as binary: either you are or you aren’t immune to COVID-19. Immunity Passports are an attractive idea, but only if they are valid. And even if they are valid, for how long is a test valid? So far, we just don’t know.
We are facing a novel coronavirus. Novel means new. New means that old categories are suspect. Rather, you must think across a spectrum of possibilities and risk — not force-fit something we don’t yet understand into old categories we do understand, but which most likely won’t be adequate.
Categories coerce. In today’s political climate, categories dumb down the way we talk about ideas and each other. Categorical thinking moves us away from understanding the bigger picture. It lacks context. Categories channel us toward certainty, but away from clarity.
Full-spectrum thinking is the ability to seek clarity across gradients of possibility — outside, across, beyond, or maybe even without any boxes or categories — while resisting false certainty.
Full-spectrum thinking has the potential to diffuse polarities, to reveal that our differences are not as stark as they seem through the narrow lens of categories. My colleague Toshi Hoo, who leads Institute for the Future’s Emerging Media Lab, commented to me that full-spectrum thinking helps us find the multi-dimensional ways in which things are connected — not just the ways in which they are distinct from each other.
Here’s what you can do to thrive in the post-outbreak scramble:
Look for examples of narrow categorical thinking or labeling that limit opportunity. Certainly, there are cases where your organization and your fellow workers are judging too soon or labeling too narrowly. Expose the limits of categorical thinking in your organization, in your industry. Seek out categorical thinking and correct it wherever you can—or at least point out the limitations.
Encourage and reward full-spectrum thinking. Full-spectrum thinking will allow more people to be future-ready, more able to make sense out of new opportunities and threats. Full-spectrum thinking will allow us to make a better future through efforts like training and executive development programs for corporations, nonprofits, government agencies, and the military.
Think NOW, FUTURE, NEXT. It is actually easier to see where things are going if you think ten or more years ahead, rather than inching your way out from the present. This way of looking back from the future makes it much easier to see full spectrum. The present is just too noisy — so frighteningly noisy during a crisis.
Most organizations and most leaders think NOW, NEXT, Future; they don’t spend much time at all in Future. Full-spectrum thinkers move from Now to FUTURE, and then back to Next. Many organizations with which I work use something like Now, Next, Future as a strategy framework. Others use similar models like Horizon 1, Horizon 2, Horizon 3. Try changing the order: Horizon 1, Horizon 3, then back to Horizon 2. This is a simple but profound re-ordering.
Categories won’t go away, and simple categories will work fine when they accurately match a new situation to an old one. But simplistic categories, labels, generalizations, and stereotypes will be exposed for what they are: sloppy and dangerous.
Racism, sexism, and other prejudices will be much harder to justify in a world of everyday full-spectrum thinking skills and capabilities. Future-back thinking will help us all be better prepared for the next pandemic, the next future shock.
Create and conduct spectrum diversity training for all staff. Diversity correlates with innovation. The diversity issues of social equity are not resolved, but the prospect for innovation introduces another kind of conversation. I believe that people and organizations should continue pressure for social equity across all kinds of diversity.
We can now make a separate yet complimentary argument that spectrum diversity will increase innovation, performance, and growth. Growth may be a more powerful motivator than guilt. We need to grow in our understanding of the increasingly novel future, and the COVID-19 crisis is forcing us to do just that.
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