In 2007, Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a brilliant book called “The Black Swan.” Although “black swan” is a metaphor for unanticipated events with far-reaching consequences, Taleb has recently argued that the pandemic was fully predictable — a statistical “white swan.”

For most of us, the swan is “black.” It arrived unannounced and unexpectedly shut down our economy. Cutbacks and social disruptions await. The radical belt-tightening ahead has everyone scared. Fear unravels our social compact.

So — ready or not — if you are leading an enterprise in the business, government, or civic domains, welcome to crisis management.

This black swan will force us to confront hard questions.

How will we make ends meet? Where do we have room to cut? How will we make do with less? What gets chopped and who takes the pain?

The North Star over the Cougar Buttes in Lucerne Valley, California, in 2014. Flickr: Ron Kroetz

While the bad news is that we are in economic free fall, the good news is that robust, determined collaborations by people of reasonable good will, intelligence, and civility can mitigate some of the after-effects.

But before retrenching, or at least simultaneous with it, we need to spend time on the skeletal structure of the future.

Hockey Sticks And North Stars

Hockey stick charts are used in the world of business, science, medicine, and other endeavors to display shifts. Most often, they show a short term flat or downward trajectory on the blade which later increases at the long end of the handle.

Sometimes sudden dips or increases are aberrations; at other times they show long-term success. A hockey stick chart can present investment costs before a long-term payoff, display poverty numbers after a new program, or show the path of SARS-CoV-2 vaccine trials before one proves viable.

Organizations or industries now tailspinning need an aspirational “North Star” at the long end of their current hockey stick.

Most commentators don’t believe we will fully return to pre-COVID-19 business as usual. This means a North Star exercise must assume a “new normal.”

Technically, the real North Star is called Polaris, the brightest star in the Little Dipper. In Hawaii, we might use Arcturus or Hokulea instead. Either way, a star isn’t the destination — it is a pointer.

North Star exercises are always valuable.

In the mid-1800s, freedom-seeking slaves followed “The Drinking Gourd” to get to safety in Baltimore. Similarly, a “North Star” in business is a route marker. It flags an organization’s short raison d’être, primary product or service, and its customers.

North Star exercises also need calibration. The best such exercises set up an uber-metric that rises over others.

The idea is to measure what matters most knowing that not everything that matters can be precisely measured.

Many tracking numbers will contribute to a dashboard but a North Star metric allows a broad measure of return on yesterday’s investment. The return may not just be financial but is best when it’s measurable.

All of this is a reminder: in crisis, there is opportunity.

Here are some examples from specific business enterprises: Airbnb: nights booked; Facebook: daily active users; Slate Magazine: total engaged time.

For most private organizations and government agencies in Hawaii, the western end of the stick – the blade — is likely to plunge before it begins to rise in the east. It could look like this if we can reimagine matters 10 years from now.

North Star deliberations accomplish this, albeit with short and limited language. They can also be interim as phases of an organizational recovery unfold.

Paradoxically, hockey planning forces our unit of analysis to combine long- and short-term thinking. As in driving a car, we have to watch the car in front of us, see what is in the side- and rear-view mirrors, and think strategically about our farther destination.

For agencies, businesses, civic groups or counties and states, these kinds of discussions can be built around questions:

  • How will we organize the conversation? What kind of preparation, stage-setting, and choreography is needed?
  • Who will lead the discussions, who will be at the table, and how can other stake- and rights-holders inject their ideas into the mix?
  • Assuming at least three or more years of slow but improving recovery, what do we assume conditions for our enterprise will be like economically, socially, and politically both short and long term?
  • What is the new position we want to occupy at a farther point in time and what are the components of a “new normal”?
  • How will our methods differ from our previous ways of doing things?
  • How will we differentiate ourselves from other competitors?
  • How will we be sustainable?

Two-track thinking is already emerging. Alan Oshima, the state’s recovery task force leader, has noted that “If we follow the same process, we’ll end in the same place again.” His door is open and ideas are surfacing.

The travel industry is thinking through how tourism must be different and move from “marketing” to “management.”

Schools in the DOE and the 10-campus University of Hawaii system are shifting to distance learning and the use of electronic forums and gatherings.

Despite all our current dangers and fears, all of this is a reminder: in crisis, there is opportunity.

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