VICIOUS VERSUS VIRTUOUS CYCLES 

I would argue that all of our activity, both in business and in everyday life, can be organized into one of two cycles: 

  1. Vicious Cycle: A series of interactions where the actions and decisions of all parties involved require them to work harder and harder to accomplish less and less—or, at best, to merely stay afloat. Typically, this cycle creates a sense of futility, anger or depression. 
  1. Virtuous Cycle:  A series of interactions where the actions and decisions of all parties involved allow them to achieve higher and higher levels of accomplishment with proportionately less effort. Typically, this cycle creates a sense of hope, optimism or happiness. 

Today is March 17, 2020 and the world is in the midst of the most severe Vicious Cycle of my lifetime: the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.  

In just three months, the novel coronavirus has infected over ~850,000 people and killed over ~41,200 worldwide (as of 3:00pm on 03/31/2020 as reported by John Hopkins). Health systems and manufacturing supply chains are scrambling to make rapid changes to their operations in an effort to prevent their systems from being overwhelmed. If the “Shelter In Place” actions do not sufficiently slow the spread, and the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic overloads the system, people who normally would have received care through the critical points of their illness will not have access to essential healthcare services. Instead of recovering, many will tragically pass away in isolation.  

This is an extreme example of a vicious cycle that is global in scope. However, in less extreme form,  vicious cycles are fully embedded in our Building industry. The COVID-19 crisis can be used to illustrate the underlying pressures that give rise to both the vicious and virtuous cycle environments. The following examples may be drawn from the field of public health, but the points they illustrate apply equally to all of us in Building.  

What creates each of these cycles and how do they work?  

Consider the following circumstance: a thought experiment or imaginary scenario identifies a potential problem long before it actually occurs. In this case, a mutated virus, unknown to the healthcare community, jumps from an animal to a human host and then spreads rapidly among humans. For decades, this hypothetical pandemic has been a prominent topic among ALL public health experts. It has also been a theme of popular culture. To name two well-known examples, a global pandemic was the subject of the Hollywood movie Contagion and the focus of a Bill Gates TED Talk in 2015. However, despite being ahead of the curve in theory, our public health and political systems have failed to develop a coherent policy and material stockpiles, to effectively manage a global crisis—indeed, there are still tons of problems when it comes to everyday healthcare delivery in “normal” times. In fact, in May of 2018, the current Administration dismantled the NSC’s entire global health unit. The focus of this group was to provide a single coordination point within the Executive branch for responding to this sort of crisis. This move represents a recent manifestation of the long history of political dysfunction that is hobbling the government’s response to the pandemic.  

This is the first characteristic of the vicious cycle:  

  • The failure of leadershipwhether intentional or unintentional, to recognizeprepare for and educate their constituency about a known challenge. 

When leadership (don’t forget this also includes an individual acting on their own behalf) projects uncertainty or contradicts the words and actions of their staff, a serious crisis of trust and confidence arises. Staff are placed in the lose-lose quandary of trying to work through situations with no viable option for success—where failure is the outcome of every option. If they execute a plan to achieve their goal, it will put them in conflict with leadership directives. Or, if they follow leadership directives, they know they will not achieve their goal. There is no way out. This creates a precarious situation where people work harder and harder to try to figure out a way to succeed, but are ultimately demoralized because they have been set up to fail. 

This is the second characteristic of the vicious cycle:  

  • An individual’s ability to understand and successfully implement their daily tasks is diminished due to deficient leadership. 

These two examples should sound familiar to many of us in the Building world 

Here is a typical “Vicious Cycle” example that we see in almost all building projects. A rushed schedule creates poorly executed design documents and shop drawing submittals. Continued poor communication and collaboration leads to sloppy foundation and rough-in installations. Every team member to follow will be battling a vicious cycle for the project duration. Working much harder to accomplish the contracted work and in some cases, quality may be compromised due to poor decisions at project start-up. 

A virtuous cycle has a 180 degree reverse take on each of these characteristics  

  • The intentional, willful and successful actions by leadership to recognize, prepare for and educate their constituency about a known challenge. 
  • An individual’s ability to understand and successfully implement their daily tasks is expanded due to successful leadership. 

The same project described above can be potentially placed into a “Virtuous Cycle” simply by allowing the necessary time for proper documentation, communication and coordination. Attributes typically experienced on every well executed building project.  Since every team member builds upon the work of the underlying trades, work performed well by the excavator improves the experience of the concrete foundations. Which in turn improves the experience of the rough-In trades.  This continues ad infinitum until the project is complete. By definition, a classic example of a virtuous cycle. 

It is a choice we each make everyday in our personal and our business lives:  

Creating a cycle of futility, anger or depression or a cycle of hope, happiness or optimism 

The correct choice seems obvious to me. 

Stay safe keep your families, loved ones and neighbors safe and be well! 

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