When Everything Is A Crisis, Nothing Is

Who would win in a fight between the housing crisis in one corner and monkeypox in another?

We live in a world that now has competing, intersecting, and sometimes conflicting crises.

There are the old standards like the climate crisis, and the health crisis (now inflated to a national emergency by Rishi Sunak). The long term housing crisis is now so bad we need to consider 50 year mortgages. Then there’s the new kids on the block: the food crisis, the energy crisis and the cost of living crisis.

And let’s not forget the latest global health emergency Monkeypox , to add to the other two: the coronavirus pandemic and the continuing effort to eradicate polio.

That’s six crises and three health emergencies. Then there’s the small matter of a war in Europe. There are probably more crises you could add dependent on your sector or particular hobby horse. Prison crisis? Immigration crisis? Debt crisis?

Are we truly doomed, or in danger of exaggerating everything to crisis level?

When I say exaggerating in no way do I mean to downplay their individual seriousness. But I wonder if by turning everything into a crisis or an emergency we reduce people’s ability to pay attention to them. Or worse, diffuse efforts to actually tackle them.

Language is important. To most of us when we think of emergency we’d be thinking immediate threat to life like a house fire or a car crash. The seriousness and immediacy of a problem means the speed and approach of response is vastly different.

The change of language to refer to a climate crisis rather than talk about climate change was deliberate. Back in 2019 the Guardian noted that:

“Climate emergency” or “climate crisis” should be used instead of “climate change” as climate change is no longer considered to accurately reflect the seriousness of the overall situation”.

That makes sense, but it seems strange to claim equivalence for , say, Monkeypox given the latter is largely confined to men who have sex with men and at this point has only killed 5 people in Africa.

I’ll suggest that the repeated use of the word crisis is perhaps applied a little too liberally. Indeed, the tendency to call any issue a crisis can mean we overlook opportunities for innovation.

In a crisis everyone knows the worst thing you can do is panic. The second worst thing you can do in a crisis is to throw money at the problem.

By labelling everything a crisis we risk doing both those things.

It often takes the reality of a genuine crisis to shake an organisation out of complacency. It can boost courage and give us the impetus to take actions that would be unthinkable in times of calm.

Writing for MITSloan, Elsbeth Johnson and Fiona Murray identify five interdependent conditions that characterize a crisis and boost innovation.

  • A crisis provides a sudden and real sense of urgency.
  • This urgency enables organizations to drop all other priorities and focus on a single challenge, reallocating resources as needed.
  • With this singular focus and reallocated resources, it’s now everybody’s job to come together to solve the problem, bringing a new diversity of viewpoints and perspectives.
  • This urgency and singular focus legitimizes what would otherwise constitute “waste,” allowing for more experimentation and learning.
  • Because the crisis is only temporary, the organization can commit to a highly intense effort over a short period of time.

By their definition many of the issues I’ve mentioned aren’t actual crises but are longer term systemic issues. How many of our organisations – if any – have ‘dropped all over priorities’ to focus on a single challenge. Answers in the comments section please!

Let’s look at some real innovation , in a real crisis.

The publication of the genetic sequence of COVID-19 in early January 2020 triggered the mobilisation of an international response to find a vaccine. The fast tracking of clinical trials and regulatory processes achieved in less than 12 months what conventionally takes more than ten years.

Anne White highlights some lessons we should take from this:

More collaboration. In nearly every case, meaningful progress against Covid-19 has been the result of multiple organisations working together with a unified mission.

Rethinking user research. Social distancing measures and the lockdowns could have been a barrier to clinical trials (participants couldn’t travel nor could you go to their home) , but the use of new technology and thinking differently about user engagement meant a wider, more geographically diverse, set of participants could be reached.

Better integration of digital technologies. Existing and readily available technology – video conferencing and chat apps for instance – were used to engage participants and share results. Data analytics were used to speed up vaccine development by enabling more efficient design of experiments and by creating rapid-scale production rollout processes.

Three things: collaboration, user research, digital tech as an accelerant of learning. This should be used as Innovation 101 for all our organisations going forward.

Let’s not confuse a crisis for demand issues that are often self created over decades. Many of our issues are a result of complex problems , including our way of life, societal and environmental change, and even a lack of personal responsibility.

Conflating issues into catch all crises mean it is possible to ignore the systemic issues which created them. It also means we are predisposed to adopt a silo position in attempts to solve them. Why should the NHS colleagues I was talking to a couple of weeks ago care about the housing crisis when they’ve got a health emergency with a myriad subset of crises – mental health, obesity, ageing – to deal with?

Injecting billions of pounds into crises may give some short term relief but won’t tackle the root cause or return us to a golden age. The past leads to the present. The road we went down got us here.

Widespread use of the word crisis robs it of any power and results in , at best, confusion and at worst lethargy.

By calling problems all the same we risk dealing with them all the same. Or worse, doing nothing because when everything is a crisis nothing really is.


Photo by Luke White on Unsplash

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