It’s a classic Black Swan event: It came out of nowhere and its impact on the world has been catastrophic.

In the nearly four months since the coronavirus outbreak, economies have gone into a tailspin. Stock markets have crashed. And people’s lives have changed forever.

Much like the Ebola outbreak in parts of Africa from 2014-16 and SARS in parts of Asia in 2003, the coronavirus disease has tested governments, medical experts, and policy-makers across the world. 

More than 160,000 people have died of it globally so far, with India accounting for a little over 550 deaths. 

There’s no vaccine or medication to cope with the contagious respiratory illness yet. Three vaccines are in clinical trials but it could be a while before anything is available to the general public. 

So, how do you go about solving this massive problem? Moreover, can you solve it?

Let’s take a step back. And first, define the problem.

Our Defining Problems course says that the first step in solving a problem is to define it well. And to define a problem, it’s important to understand its nature. 

Leadership expert Ronald Heifetz from Harvard Kennedy School categorizes problems into three types based on their nature: technical, adaptive, and blended. 

Harappa faculty and leadership coach Sousan Abadian, who worked with Heifetz, explains what these categories are. 

Technical and Adaptive problems.

Technical problems are easy to identify and define and can be solved by an expert.

People are receptive and do not resist solutions because they don’t require a change in attitudes, habits, or behaviors. Hence, they take a shorter amount of time to solve. 

Then you have adaptive problems that are more complex and unpredictable. 

As the name suggests, they are adaptive which means they are fluid and change with circumstances. They have no obvious solutions or experts to help find solutions.

Dealing with adaptive problems is more complicated. 

They require a complete change in attitudes, habits, behaviors, and roles, which people often resist. Solutions need experiments and discoveries, which means that it takes much longer to solve adaptive problems. 

Here is a table to summarize both types:

                                                                       

Parameters

Technical Problems

Adaptive Problems

Definition

Clear 

Unclear 

Solution

Solutions available

No clear solutions

Expertise

Experts available

No experts 

Learning

No mindset change needed

Changes in attitudes and mindsets

Is the coronavirus pandemic a technical problem or an adaptive problem? 

On the face of it, it seems like a technical problem. The pandemic is a virus. You definitely have experts who understand how to deal with viruses. Many of them are working on better treatment and vaccines. There is no resistance on that front. 

But, then again, is it only a technical problem?

Not entirely. It has all the traits of an adaptive challenge. The pandemic has led to a dramatic shift in the way we live and work. Companies have moved to work from home overnight, public places are shut, and all travel is suspended. Essentially, the world has come to a standstill because of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. 

Governments and epidemiologists are baffled by the virus and there are no easy fixes. Viruses, as they say, don’t need passports: The COVID-19 virus, which spreads easily from one person to another, has traveled easily across countries and continents. 

And there’s no easy way to stop it. Not until there’s a vaccine, that is.

So we approach it as a blended problem or one that has both technical and adaptive components. And then address each of them individually.

If you’re an expert of any kind—a healthcare worker, policymaker, scientist, an essential services provider—then your role is clear. 

You are already doing your part in helping solve the technical components of the problem: providing good treatment, getting more testing kits, developing a vaccine, putting out advisories and so on.

If you’re not an expert, you still have a huge role to play in helping solve the adaptive components of the problem. 

Practice social distancing, spread awareness, help keep peoples’ spirits up in these uncertain times, donate to organizations doing good work, wash your hands, and stay indoors if you have the privilege to do so. 

Together, we can solve this. 

Manisha Koppala is an Associate Specialist in the Curriculum team at Harappa Education. The literature graduate from Ashoka University loves a cup of good coffee and happens to be a free-hugs dispenser.


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