To defeat COVID we need to think outside the bureaucracy box

The implementation this week of vaccination hubs specifically designed by and for those living with disability and their carers shows what we can achieve when we think outside the bureaucracy box.

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.

People wait in line to get a COVID-19 vaccine in Melbourne.

People wait in line to get a COVID-19 vaccine in Melbourne.Credit:Scott McNaughton

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.

To defeat COVID we need to think outside the bureaucracy box
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