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  • Writer's pictureJake Wood

Conquering Chaos

Updated: Jul 1, 2020

The United States has recently become completely overwhelmed with the chaos stemming from increasing infection rates and death stemming from novel coronavirus, otherwise known as COVID-19.  Our stock market has collapsed, our public health system is overwhelmed, all levels of government are failing in their efforts to coordinate -and worse, communicate. 


The scenarios are nightmarish. One question that should be asked is, did it have to be this way?  

The United States has recently become completely overwhelmed with the chaos stemming from increasing infection rates and death stemming from novel coronavirus, otherwise known as COVID-19.  Our stock market has collapsed, our public health system is overwhelmed, all levels of government are failing in their efforts to coordinate -and worse, communicate.   

The scenarios are nightmarish. One question that should be asked is, did it have to be this way?  

The answer, simply, is no.  

Sure, this virus was going to be disruptive regardless of proactive measures. But there’s a difference between disruption and disintegration. And we are seeing the result of disintegration across every aspect of our society. This has been the result of the failures of our institutions to prepare for, respond to, and adjust with the unique circumstances brought on by COVID-19. 

At Team Rubicon, a nonprofit that responds to natural disasters and humanitarian crises by utilizing the skill and training of military veterans, we are familiar with chaos. In fact, chaos, literally, is what we do. For weeks our organization has been preparing for COVID-19, leveraging the lessons we have learned over our last decade of operations for managing chaos.  

First, what is chaos? It’s important to note that not all chaos is alike. To help understand chaos, I will use a construct developed by the US Army known as VUCA. VUCA is an acronym that stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. Each of these terms describes a particular type of chaos, defined by unique characteristics and challenges.  

  • Volatile situations are unexpected and unstable but easy to understand. You know the variables but cannot control them. The duration of volatile situations is unknown. Think of the stock market. You know the levers that cause prices to go up and down, but you cannot control them.  

  • Uncertain situations lack predictability and have many prospects for surprise. You understand basic cause and effect, but lack the information needed to leverage that understanding. Think of the game of Blackjack. You understand the rules of the game and how to win. You cannot pick your cards, but you know what they are. However, you only know 50% of the dealer’s hand.  

  • Complex situations have countless interconnected parts and variables. The volume and nature of information is overwhelming. Causes have multi-order consequences.   Think of Chess. After each player has made four moves on the board there are 288 billion possible board configurations. That’s a staggering amount of possibilities. An average chess game lasts forty moves, with an average of thirty options per move. Great chess players think multiple moves ahead and must account for all of those hundreds of options in their strategy. 

  • Ambiguous situations are dominated by unknown-unknowns. Causal relationships are unclear of confusing. What is causing what? One plus one no longer equals two. Making things even more challenging, there is no precedent for what is occurring, reducing or eliminating our ability to rely on experience.  The best analogy for ambiguity is getting dropped into a giant maze. You have no landmarks and no information. Every turn is just a guess, and it becomes impossible to mentally map what you are experiencing. The best you can do is to keep walking.  

Each element of VUCA should sound somewhat terrifying, because that is what chaos tends to be – an unnerving scenario that stresses our systems and injects fear into decision making.  

While we tend to think of chaos as monolithic, understanding how the discrete elements of what we’re facing linefacing lines up to VUCA can help us formulate plans and take actions to maximize our ability to survive, or better yet thrive, in these environments.  

So, what is the answer? It just so happens to be VUCA.  

That’s right, there’s another side of VUCA and it happens to be the answer to chaos. This second acronym stands for Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility, and these four things are any organization’s keys to conquering chaos. 

  • Vision: Keep the big picture in mind. Know your organization’s vision for the situation and work towards it.  Don’t react to circumstances in a manner incongruent with your stated vision. 

  • Understanding: Create a sense of security among your team by sharing information, strategies, and results. In doing so you’ll create a shared consciousness that allows the organization’s decision capacity capacity to be greater than its sum.  

  • Clarity: Distill all the vast amounts of information down to what’s most salient. Eliminate misinformation. Define, communicate, and empower people’s roles. Through this you will create focus.  Crystal. Clear. Communication. 

  • Agility: Empower your people to make key decisions and generate rapid feedback loops. Push accountabilities forward.  

While all four of things will be important in any chaotic situation, be sure to pay particular attention to how they match up with the unique circumstance you face. For example, in a situation of Complexity, your primary focus should be on Clarity. If you’re playing chess and facing thousands of possibilities, you’ll make better decisions if you can quickly eliminate those that aren’t viable and make your move based on only a handful of quality choices.  

So how does this relate to COVID-19?  

COVID-19 is chaos incarnate. But certain elements of what we are seeing map directly to VUCA.  For instance, this disease is called a ‘novel’ coronavirus because it has never been seen before. That led to massive amounts of Uncertainty surrounding elements of its transmission – could it remain airborne? Could it be transmitted via touch or sexual intercourse? These uncertainties often lead to inaction – people become paralyzed by indecision and don’t act until they have all the information. This is often a recipe for disaster. 

Or take the Complexity associated with trying to track these disease vectors across the globe. As the majority of the world’s nations are beginning to see outbreaks, tracing the interactions of confirmed cases quickly becomes a tangled web. Done effectively, communities can quickly be quarantined to halt further spread and “flatten the curve,” as has been talked about most recently. Adding to the complexity, since infected people can be asymptomatic for up to several days, not applying rigorous and aggressive isolation and quarantine procedures in place can leave carriers slipping through the seams and becoming unknown threat vectors as they travel across the globe. 

Finally, the condition most concerning to the United States right now is Ambiguity. We simply do not know what we do not know, and this has been a self-inflicted wound. Our nation’s leaders had the potential to take advantage of a two-month head start on this global pandemic and prepare our country for its onslaught.  We could have prepared our medical facilities, produced test kits, aggressively quarantined individuals repatriated from infected countries, and begun a public awareness campaign that was proactive instead of reactive. Instead, we put our head in the sand and hoped it wouldn’t jump across the Pacific.  

Ladies and Gentlemen, hope is not a strategy.  

Our inaction has now thrust us into a national emergency governed by ambiguity.  We have no sense for the scope of our emergency because we have only 23 tests per million citizens. Compare this with South Korea, which has 3,692 per million. Our federal government is failing to coordinate with or effectively empower state and local governments with the necessary kits or authorities for testing.  Further, misinformation flowing from official channels has sowed many of the public with skepticism for the dangers posed, meaning that even when testing becomes more widely available, many will choose not to get tested out of belief that it’s a hoax.  

So, what can we do?  

We must use VUCA to our advantage.   

Our leaders must establish a clear, coherent, and credible Vision for how our government will respond to protect its citizens. This message must come from the top and must reverberate through all channels and levels of government and the private sector. At Team Rubicon, early in the process we set a vision for how we would respond. It was simple: we would act to protect the communities we serve, the volunteers who serve them, and the communities our volunteers return to.  That simple – but clear – vision has guided every action taken and decision made, even as we have completely overhauled our policies, procedures, and practices.  

We must achieve Understanding by investing the time needed to consolidate facts, listen to perspectives, and generate ideas. At Team Rubicon we immediately established a cross-functional task force comprised of top executives and key staff who have met twice a day for three weeks. Many organizations would view these hundreds of hours as time wasted – but as this pandemic has metastasized, we have found ourselves leaning forward with contingency plans developed days ago, while our colleagues are caught flat footed and reacting. We also developed a communications rhythm with all of our stakeholders, providing for them a single source of truth that communicated the threat, our strategy, and our expected results. We didn’t sugarcoat it, but sometimes the brutal truth has a way of generating confidence.  

Leaders across society must pursue Clarity by ascribing to the facts as they’re presented by the scientific community. As leaders we must filter out the misinformation and noise and focus our teams on the problem as it stands, not as we hope it is.  

Finally, we must make our nation, medical systems, and our organizations more agile by empowering our most front-line leaders to make crucial decisions. Those leaders will prove to be our most resourceful problem solvers, and done right, they will help us iterate quickly as we move through the current ambiguity and toward stability. 

Remember, hope is not a strategy. 

Team Rubicon has built one of the country’s fastest growing nonprofits while responding to the world’s most chaotic situations – whether it was the Haiti earthquake, Hurricane Harvey, or Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas.  Our methods for conquering chaos were borne on the battlefield, where experience in the “fog of war” has helped an entire generation of veterans develop the tools necessary to navigate these situations. 

Perhaps the greatest lesson is this: hope doesn’t win battles, nor do the best battleplans. Success in chaos is a combination of culture and the elements of VUCA – vision, understanding, clarity, and agility.   

Hopeful thinking got us in this mess. It won’t get us out.  

Support Team Rubicon here.

Jake Wood is the Cofounder and CEO of Team Rubicon, a nonprofit organization that recruits, trains, and deploys military veterans for disaster response and humanitarian assistance. The organization has over 110,000 volunteers and has deployed to over 400 disasters globally.

Jake's memoir, Once a Warrior, will be published this fall by Sentinel. It can be ordered here.

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