Fighting complacencyMar 15th, 2020
My originally scheduled posts have been postponed for three weeks while I watch the pandemic unfolds and escalates in the western world. I was not too concerned1 when China locked down 780 million people. That happened when I started this blog, and I never doubted that the Chinese people would prevail. However, I am seriously worried about the developed world, so I am writing down some unstructured management and leadership lessons I have learned from the situation. Here, the first one is to fight complacency.
Optimism from the SARS outbreak
It appears every swift, aspiring startup eventually turns into a sluggish, boring dinosaur if they are successful. It also appears that every determined, uprising nation eventually transforms into a hesitant, complacent state. After enjoying thousands of years of prosperity, China was that dinosaur a century ago when the western world brought about modern civilization. Seemingly, the East is now on the upswing while the West is past its peak.
I was in high school during the SARS outbreak. That was much smaller in scale compared to COVID-19, yet China implemented a near-total lock-down. I went to a boarding school, which was typical for high schools in my area. The entire school was barricaded for two months. Nobody in, nobody out. We did not understand why, nor were we happy about it. Joining hundreds of my fellow schoolmates, I unleashed my anger and depression one evening by revolting against the authorities. Protests ranged from dumping textbooks from the top floor to flipping light switches in the classrooms. The Principal called for an emergent all-teacher-and-student meeting late that night, where he teared up and begged down for cooperation. I laugh at myself and my friends for our ignorance every time I recall the memory.
That gives me confidence in the Chinese government and the Chinese people to contain COVID-19. Still licking the wounds from SARS in 2003, East Asian neighbors such as South Korea and Singapore are also well prepared. All of them have competent governments and vigilant citizens who understand the threat of this pandemic. That makes me optimistic.
The most developed western world2, on the contrary, is way too complacent. People, from President Trump to the media3, think it is just a flu. They view China as a third-world country unable to cope with any infectious disease. They do not believe in the numbers reported by Chinese officials. They are confident to put out the fire in one click. Their response is much like the typical incumbent responding to an uprising disruptor.4
That is particularly ironic when the situation escalated in the western world. Many were unable to implement swift measures to contain the transmission. Some stopped reporting any numbers, trustworthy or not. A few basically gave up and resorted to Social Darwinism.
The crude fact is that, if Everything’s Bigger in Texas, Everything’s Gigantic in China. The western world lacks the infrastructure and the technology to implement a Wuhan-style lock-down.
What is more interesting is that the western world was fully capable of doing so in response to the Spanish Flu more than a century ago. People were required to wear masks to board cable cars in Seattle, and anyone not wearing a mask in San Francisco would be arrested. That is basically the same policies China has implemented to combat COVID-19. The United States emerged as a world leader after World War I. It is not unthinkable if COVID-19 becomes the tipping point for a geopolitical shift from US dominance to China.
Fortunately, the tech industry has learned to treat China as a formidable player. From eBay vs Taobao to Uber vs Didi, the Silicon Valley paid expensive tuitions. It is clear that China has an enormous advantage in both physical and virtual infrastructure. High-speed trains in China make the US look like the Middle Ages. PayPal would kill for an Alipay-like dominance. WeChat is a superior product with integrated payments, something that Facebook is actively trying replicate. Twitter abandoned Vine long before TikTok took off in its home field. The tech industry learned not to be complacent through the fierce competition. When they heard the news of the outbreak in China, they treated it seriously and took action quickly.
The same lesson applies to individuals. I find my professional career to oscillate between anxiety and complacency. Whenever I was taking a new role or joining a new team, I would be deeply eager to learn, to deliver results and to prove myself. Almost every time it would turn out to be a high growth period for me, even though I felt deeply uncomfortable. Whenever I entered a comfort zone, complacency would eventually kick in and my growth would stall.
As an Engineering Manager, I am one step removed from the front line. That brings me another challenge. How do I know if my team is building great products that my users need? I have found it useful to talk to users and to personally try out my products, but that topic is more appropriate for another dedicated post.
Reason for optimism
Back to the pandemic and complacency, I am worried but still optimistic. I personally believe in free markets. Companies compete for profits by building superior products, and they would be driven out of business if they stay complacent for too long. Nations compete in the same way albeit in a less-free market. The Internet-enabled global information exchange imposes enormous pressure on every government to look after the commonwealth of its people. They have to deliver, and they will.
I was not too concerned even though I had big stakes at the table. My hometown, Nanyang, is adjacent to Hubei Province, where the pandemic originates. Almost my entire extended family, including my parents, grandparents and in-laws, live there. One of my cousins that I grew up with lives and works in Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. He had booked a train ride going back to Nanyang on January 24th, the Lunar New Year’s Eve, to celebrate the largest festival in the country. The lock-down was announced and became effective at midnight that day, and he has been stranded in Wuhan ever since. ↩
Japan is also commonly considered a western country. It appears they could have done a better job in dealing with the Diamond Princess crisis. ↩
Contrary to government and media complacency, many more people in the western society were extraordinarily alert and acted quickly. The first community spread in the US was confirmed by Dr. Helen Chu of Seattle Flu Study, against the orders from the US CDC and FDA. ↩