A ton of articles have been written about Covid-19 during 2020. As of July 2020, I cannot remember any situation during my lifetime that has received such extensive news coverage as Covid-19. The only thing that rivals it is the terrorist attacks of September 11 . But, even those horrific attacks did not touch the lives of every single American, and indeed every member of the human race, the way the global pandemic has altered our everyday lives. I am not a scientist and I offer no opinion on the science and won’t regurgitate the facts that are easily available on the Center for Disease Control or John Hopkins University websites. Rather, I want to talk about the principles of “I don’t know” and “operating assumptions” in the context of Covid-19.
I tell everyone working within my company there are only two answers to any question: First, the answer that is factual and exactly correct; Second, the answer of “I don’t know but I will find out.” I don’t have room for speculation, rumor, conjecture and other misleading narratives when
making decisions about how to allocate capital and handle personnel decisions. I need facts. However, I fully understand there are situations where not all the facts are known, or in a more complicated instance, not all the facts are knowable right away. It is in this space that I work on what I call “operating assumptions”. It seems to me that everyone – scientists, government officials, business leaders, citizens – have been operating on assumptions during Covid-19. In the very early stages of January and
February the general public knew very little at all about the pandemic and what was to come.
Without question, scientists that specialize in virology and epidemiology knew there was a substantial danger. But, even the experts knew much less than a person would want to know when confronted with such a massive public health crisis. I believe this is why the messaging during March and April seemed so confusing to information consumers that were trying to
understand the emerging data. I have opinions, but will offer none here, on the specific messaging of federal, state and local leaders. There is a common thread, though. Almost all of them were perceived to have more facts than they really had. Thus, I believe many citizens were hearing information and processing it as “fact” when it was really just an “operating assumption”.
How do I define an “operating assumption”? Any time it’s necessary to take action when you are aware there are facts, data or information you would like to have but don’t possess at the time of making the decision. A classic example is the food we eat each day. You can find study after
study over a period of decades that contradict each other on diet. One example is eggs. While I was growing up there was a consistent message that eating eggs would increase my cholesterol and this would be a negative. In more recent years, the studies tend to show that daily
consumption of eggs is either not a problem or at least not as much of one as we were led t believe previously. I eat several eggs each day (and love them) because my “operating assumption” is that they are not bad for my health. A couple years ago, I quit drinking Diet Cola (which I also loved) because I believed it was bad for my health. I think we all would have been better served in the Spring of 2020 if many officials had given the answer of “I don’t know but we are working on finding out. In the meantime, we are taking these actions because we believe they might help.”
The way the guidance on masks has evolved is a good example. From what I can tell, early on many experts believed that wearing masks was a good idea in helping to slow down the spread of Covid-19 particles that are transmitted from person to person. But, a calculation was made that if the general public, particularly the American people, were given this “operating assumption” then there would be a hoarding of masks similar to what happened with the hoarding of toilet paper. Now that in July 2020 there is a strong supply chain for masks (or at least face coverings), some people don’t trust the new push for everyone wearing a mask. And, to be clear, we don’t know with absolute certainty that wearing a mask will slow down the spread of Covid-19. However, and this is the critical part, we
now have a strong “operating assumption” that masks are one of the best tools we have to combat the virus along with physical distancing.
We all use “operating assumptions” in our daily lives. They are a valuable tool to help us navigate decisions and manage our time. However, some of our assumptions later prove to be wrong. That is why I always reassess my thinking when presented with new evidence and data. I am wrong quite a bit and about a lot of things. And, that’s fine because I am always willing to
evolve. There is so much more information that I don’t know compared to what I do know. The world is a complex and magnificent place. Curiosity and humility are great traits to possess in the business world and in your personal life – in my opinion, of course. So, the next time someone asks you a question and you are not sure of the answer, please consider saying “I don’t know, but this is what I have done before in these situations. Maybe it’s time to take a new approach, though.” After all, everyone knows how you spell ass-u-me.