In June, we published an article about the importance of “close-out execution” called ESG & Running the Anchor Leg. Since that time we’ve seen the problems called out in that article magnified on a global scale and the results of those failures written in the numbers of COVID hospitalizations and deaths and in the dollars wasted due to failed collaboration within and among nations. Now is not the time for criticism or negativity though. Global collaboration has never been more important in our history. One of the things that always fascinated me and caused me to major in Biology in college was the seemingly intelligent way nature is wired to scale. Principles like evolution, genetics, and viral growth anthropomorphize natural processes into what seem like intelligent decisions. It appears that nature analyzes a situation and responds intelligently to external conditions. The poet in me wishes that were true, but that’s just not how it works.
The natural progressions behind evolution and genetics are generally random and viral outbreaks have no central intelligence. Mutations happen and then external conditions align to select for them. Viruses are built to replicate and use hosts as the fuel to do so. They don’t get bored or tired and they don’t coordinate their efforts or collaborate internationally. One virus is simply trying to replicate. That’s it. A simple process done trillions of times with a singular focus results in the pandemic we have today. That singular focus is what we must stop.
We however, the global population of the world, have gotten quite good at collaborating. We have versions of centralized intelligence and exchanges of information that drive decision making, influence allocation of resources and can be further unified to create greater levels of intelligence and better decision making. We have the internet, mobile devices, IoT, and APIs that allow us to become The Smart Swarm that COVID-19 thankfully will never become. Humans are better together. The achievements, methodologies and successes of our neighbors and our competitors make us better. We actively learn from each other, and that very human process is what allows for collaboration at a global scale. As promising news of vaccines comes online, we need to learn something from the virus itself, and that is the singular and relentless focus on a finite and repeatable process. Ours is not to replicate though, it is to deliver. We need to have a relentless focus on “close-out execution” and get our very best vaccines, preventions, and therapeutics to those that need them at scale, and we need to remember that COVID-19 does not need a passport.
The 4X100 relay is a great lesson in collaboration, singular focus, coordination and repeatable process. It is close-out execution at its finest:
How is that possible?
In a relay, there is a critical segment of every leg called the “changeover box.” It is the most important 60m of the 400m race and why 4X Usain Bolt’s 100m is slower than the team’s time. In a relay, there is only one cold start. In every other leg of the relay, the changeover box allows the next runner to try and match the speed of the incoming runner. The handoff of the baton happens at speed and this coordinated effort allows the team to maintain momentum. The team’s result beats the individual runner’s because the team has unique expertise focused on each leg that is coordinated throughout the race and their collaboration and coordination allows them to fully sprint for 100m and then hand off to their uniquely qualified teammates. They can maintain momentum and eliminate the cold start and this is why they beat my hypothetical 4X Usain Bolt’s individual 100m. (There is certainly a wise-cracker reader out there who is saying that if you clone Usain Bolt and put him in each leg he’d win. That may be true but that’s not a thing. Replication is not our strength, coordination and collaboration is.) One final point about the changeover box: the handoff, when done correctly, is done at nearly top speed and is done “blind”. This means the runner receiving the baton is singularly focused on their leg and on sprinting at top speed and is fully trusting that the approaching runner will put the stick in their hands. Though they are not looking backwards (and slowing themselves down) there is constant verbal and even physical communication among the runners that comes from days and weeks of practice repeating and perfecting the process until that moment, at breakneck speed and with precise coordination, when the approaching runner yells “stick!” and the handoff is made. “Blind” means, when done right, they aren’t using their eyes at the moment of exchange — but they do watch the runner approaching, listen to them get closer, feel their physical presence immediately prior to the handoff and can feel and hear them running inches behind them at record breaking speed until the stick hits their palm and off they go!
Fighting the coronavirus, and any global pandemic for that matter (in many parts of the world Malaria, HIV, Tuberculosis and other communicable diseases are still scarier and more deadly than COVID-19) requires the same kind of teamwork and coordination as an elite relay team. This requires clear communication, preservation of momentum, successful handoffs at breakneck speed and close-out execution. Kountable has spent the last 5 years building a technology platform that coordinates and communicates transitions among distributed and dynamic teams. We’ve delivered Rapid Diagnostics Kits to East Africa, delivered and installed security infrastructure for the UN, delivered and installed equipment for roads and hospitals, a fleet of ambulances for the US CDC in Rwanda and essential healthcare consumables to improve patient outcomes across East Africa. We digitize the “changeover box” and broadcast all of the signals that allow for tight, synchronized coordination and collaboration across a normally unconnected set of actors.
Where are the changeover boxes of global trade?
To continue the analogy, the changeover box is where one leg ends and another begins. The goal of a well executed changeover is to preserve momentum by staying “up to speed,” to facilitate communication and coordination and to leverage the strengths of each segment and ensure the transition is successfully executed and we don’t “drop the stick.” The changeover boxes of global trade are places like loading docks where goods are picked up by trucks and put on ships, they’re transshipment hubs like seaports, airports and inland ports, they’re customs clearing agencies where goods are officially imported, they’re local and international banks where payments are sent, received and settled, and they’re the loading docks and warehouses of the end consumers where goods are accepted.
The international relay that is global trade has been done “blind” for too long. There are many signals that can be captured and broadcast to the donors, funders, governments, multi-lateral institutions and NGOs whose mandate it is to win this race. Like any digital transformation, once the business processes have been formalized, structured, digitized, and automated we can begin to apply machine learning and artificial intelligence to them and the more we repeat them, the more efficient they will become. This is happening at breakneck speed at the enterprise level but those are only the first one or two legs of this race. We need to extend these capabilities to legs three and four and beyond. We need to include the massive and distributed network of local suppliers, freight forwarders, customs brokers, buyers and banks. It isn’t good enough to lead halfway through the race. We need close-out execution to win, and for that we need to include these players in this digital transformation.
COVID-19 has a singular focus: replication. That’s what viruses are built for. The modern human and the modern economy are interconnected and extremely mobile. The combination of replication and mobility is the magic recipe for distribution and that is why it is everywhere. We are the containers in which COVID-19 travels. Measures like masks and social distancing prevent the transmission from one container to the other. Vaccines will inoculate containers and make them uninhabitable for the virus but to get there we need to win at distribution. We need to inhibit distribution of the virus and coordinate distribution of interventions. To do that we need to win the anchor leg.
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