In Times of Scarcity, Clear Vision Beats Rapid Iteration: Lessons for Business Leaders from Singapore’s Response to COVID-19

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In Times of Scarcity, Clear Vision Beats Rapid Iteration – Guest blog post from Radhika Dutt.

Radhika is co-Founder of Radical Product Thinking. She has been based in Singapore for the past two years, will be speaking at BoS Conference USA Online as well as running online product masterclasses in the lead up to the event.

NB, Business of Software is not qualified to offer advice or comment on the political, medical, healthcare, epidemiological or other scientific issues around disease outbreaks, so we won’t. We will cover thoughtful, non-link bait perspectives on lessons that may be of interest and relevance to our audience. We believe you will find this worthwhile.

In Times of Scarcity, Clear Vision Beats Rapid Iteration

Lean Startup changed how we built products when it was published in 2011 – it lowered the risk in innovation by shortening development cycles. In the years that followed, we’ve had the luxury of an abundance of resources – the economy was on an upswing and credit was more easily accessible. Many companies took the Lean methodology too far and began to over-rely on iteration. It was easy to try things in the market and keep iterating to see what works.

Sometimes however, you need more than iteration, you need to rethink.

The post-pandemic economy will slash our access to capital. We’ll have less room to make mistakes and iterate on our business and product decisions. Often, we may have a single shot at getting it right. Survival will test every business leader’s ability to be a visionary with a seemingly intuitive sense for setting goals and knowing just how to achieve them.

How can we hone our visionary skills?

Ironically, we can look to the pandemic and countries’ responses to the virus for important lessons. When the virus emerged in Wuhan in December 2019, there was no doubt that the virus would arrive in Singapore. With a population of approximately half of Wuhan’s, the island nation of Singapore had a very small window for containing the virus – it was a matter of survival.

The Singaporean government’s response to COVID-19, offer three invaluable lessons in honing our visionary skills:

  1. Understand the nature of the problem you’re setting out to solve:

    Exponential growth is hard to grasp intuitively because the numbers look small at the beginning. Despite the data on the exponential spread in Wuhan, leaders in the west were looking at COVID-19 as something that they would respond to if they were to see local spread.

    In Singapore the government took a different approach. In an interview with local media in January, Prime Minister Lee reassured the public, “We have actually been preparing for a situation like this ever since we had SARS in 2003, 17 years ago.”

    The years of planning meant that they had worked through a variety of possible scenarios and crafted clear plans. It gave Singapore the ability to respond quickly. On January 3rd, while leaders around the globe were waiting for confirmation on whether the virus was transmitted between humans, Singapore started screening passengers for symptoms.

    Getting a good data-set was viewed as critical.

  1. Craft a clear vision that’s centered on the problem:

    The Singaporean prime minister stated a clear vision for Singapore’s response from the outset: a coordinated, proactive national response to the virus by detecting cases early, isolating and treating them.

    The vision wasn’t influenced by optics and what the world would think – in testing early and aggressively, Singapore had the highest number of cases outside China at the beginning of the year. But they persisted with the aggressive response. In Italy when northern Italy was testing aggressively, the directive from Rome was to chill a little because their numbers were looking unnecessarily bad. Without a clear vision that was centered on the problem at hand, the optics became the primary concern. Italy stopped testing aggressively.

    Singapore’s clear vision led to a coordinated national response across government agencies. From the beginning, the Ministry of Health (MOH) made it clear that the cost of testing and treatment would be covered by the government – there was no reason to not get tested if one were feeling under the weather. The Ministry of Manpower mandated 14 days of paid sick leave for COVID – even freelancers and contract workers would be paid for sick leave. This was a crucial early step to get sick people in the workforce to stay home.

  1. Measuring what matters, communicating vision and aligning the team:

    Getting a good data-set was viewed as critical. The government used data not only to monitor the spread but also to convince the public to embrace their responsibility in curbing the spread. The Ministry of Health has a webpage for daily announcements on the number of cases and updates on social distancing rules. The updates offer data such as the number of new cases per day by type of visa holder, number of infected healthcare workers, and the average number of unlinked cases per week where the origins cannot be traced. Armed with data, PM Lee shared precise metrics to explain to the public what keeping the virus under control meant: less than 10 new cases per day. By creating a common understanding of the current status and what success looks like, the government built support for increasingly stringent social distancing rules.

    While Singapore has done many things right, it hasn’t been perfect. COVID has highlighted the inequalities in society – hotspots developed wherever low-foreign workers lived in congested dorms. Around the world the pandemic is teaching us that we cannot have a blind spot for the weaknesses in our society. These are lessons the government will have to craft a vision to address.
    While there’s still a long way to go in overcoming the pandemic, Singapore has prevented being overwhelmed by the virus despite the population density on the island. The government is achieving the outcomes it sets out to by taking a systematic, vision-driven approach (not iteration). Herein lie the business lessons for us.

    While there’s still a long way to go in overcoming the pandemic, Singapore has prevented being overwhelmed by the virus despite the population density on the island. The government is achieving the outcomes it sets out to by taking a systematic, vision-driven approach (not iteration). Herein lie the business lessons for us.

What lessons can you apply to your business?

  1. Share your understanding of the problem:

    Vision statements are often thought of as slogans. Instead, use your vision to articulate a shared understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve. A good vision statement articulates whose problem you want to solve, what their problem is, why that needs solving, and how their world should look once the problem is solved, that is, the who, what, why, and how. I’ve found that it’s hard to write such a clear vision when you start with a blank sheet of paper — it’s easy to get stuck on finding precisely the right words. To help with this problem, you might use a “Mad-Lib” format from the Radical Product Thinking methodology.

  2. Align your team:

    To align your team it’s helpful to first understand where the misalignments lie. You can use the Mad-Lib format of the vision statement for a group exercise so that each individual can write the vision statement from their perspective. I’ve found that these group exercises provoke deeper discussions that lead to a better understanding of the problem and closer alignment in the team.

  3. Measure what matters:

    Only you can decide what really matters to you. Once you have decided however, make sure that is the thing that is measured and managed. For Singapore, the main metrics in the early response have been the number of cases, whether they were imported or local and the link to other cases. It didn’t matter too much how the world perceived those numbers – what mattered most was capturing data that offered actionable insights. Without a clear picture of why you’re measuring what you’re measuring, KPIs become vanity metrics. When you know what data offers you actionable insights, data becomes a tool in your belt to help you make progress towards your vision – not a vanity mirror.

By taking this systematic approach to getting your solution right the first time and exercising your visionary muscles, you can set yourself up to build a stronger company not just for this downturn, but the next cycle too.

Radhika Dutt s


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