Harvard Business Review Logo Thumbnail 130 x 130After unprecedented lockdowns and restrictions to flatten the curve of Covid-19 infection, business and government leaders are wrestling with the question of when and how to ease them. Various approaches are being tried, and there are wide differences of opinion. Much of the broader debate is polarized, as if only two conditions exist — “closed” or “open.” The stakes couldn’t be higher. If there were ever a time for rational decision making, it is now. Leaders should apply three principles to what may be the most consequential decision of their careers.

Be clear about the objective.

Charles Kettering, who invented the electric starter for automobiles in the early 20th century, famously said, “A problem well-stated is a problem half-solved.” The starting point for any reopening decision — for a country, state, community, or business — must begin with its objective. The objective must be reasonable and achievable, and actions must focus on achieving it. The U.S. lockdown was initially framed as “15 days to slow the spread” and prevent overwhelming the limited capacity of health systems.

Policymakers judged that objective to be sensible at the time, and worth its costs — even if it took longer than planned. Having achieved that goal, what should be next? Extreme objectives don’t appear reasonable at this point; just as there is no way to eliminate all risk of Covid-19 transmission, there is no way to quickly and fully restore economic activity. Likewise, continuing the current lockdowns for 18 months while we wait for a vaccine as some have called for is not practical either. And removing all restrictions could create a second wave. And so on.

Explore other COVID-19 disruption resources.

Objectives for reopening must balance multiple and competing considerations. Clear thinking here will go a long way toward helping frame sensible action choices. Decision scientists call these “saddle point” problems, which typically involve minimizing one quantity and maximizing another. For example, an objective could be “to minimize Covid-19 impact while maximizing non-Covid-19 health outcomes” (e.g., ensuring people receive treatment for other conditions). Or it could be “to minimize deaths from Covid-19 while maximizing preservation of employment.” Framing the question precisely, as Kettering reminds us, is the first step toward a clear solution.

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