Mar 4 2020

Hysteria and Complex Systems

I was at a dinner event last night in Denver where, predictably, coronavirus (which I’ve been trying to call Covid-19, but everyone seems to default back to coronavirus) came up.

I’ve tried to avoid being “that person” who has a strong opinion because so much is changing so quickly. Instead, I’ve tried to have a “clear opinion” based on what I currently know and how it’s impacting my world. I was particularly sensitized to this since, at a board meeting earlier in the day where it came up, someone asked me directly, “How do you think coronavirus will impact things?” A few minutes later I realized I was stuck in exactly the kind of rant that I was trying to avoid.

Over the past year, as Ian Hathaway and I worked on our upcoming book The Startup Community Way, I’ve thought a lot about complex systems. We based our conceptual framework on the theory of complex adaptive systems (which we’ve shorted to complex systems in the book for ease of reading) and it has been a really enjoyable intellectual rabbit hole to go down with Ian.

How Covid-19 is playing out is a classic example of a complex system. One of the key attributes that we discuss is contagion – both positive and negative. And, with Covid-19, we are seeing negative contagion at multiple different levels, most notably biological and economic. But, there are several others including one I’ll label hysteria.

Here’s an example. When a large technology company in a city shuts down its offices, cancels all travel, and insists everyone works remotely from home, other large technology companies around the world and other companies in the city pay attention to this. Suddenly, there is a conversation going on everywhere that is the equivalent of “should we do the same thing?” The emotional cadence of this conversation is high, so companies over-index on trying to figure out the right answer, where there isn’t really one given the nature of a complex system. Rational thinking generally aligns with “we’ll do whatever the CDC is suggesting we do”, but anyone who either doesn’t trust the government or authority figures won’t be satisfied with this. They will become more agitated (negative contagion on hysteria), which will generate more conversations and potential actions. Regardless of the actions, the cost of the conversations will be high, generate more uncertainty and agitation, and the negative contagion will continue.

I’m not suggesting that Covid-19 is no big deal. I’m not asserting that companies shouldn’t shut down offices or people shouldn’t work for home. Rather, I’m giving an example of negative contagion on a dimension (hysteria) that is appearing in complex systems that I’m involved in.

Intellectually, it’s fascinating. Emotionally, it’s challenging.