Product Manager, Solution Architect, Amateur Historian
“Then the storm broke, and the dragons danced.” ― George R.R. Martin,
Fire & Blood
The Covid-19 outbreak is one of the greatest “what if” scenarios in human history, the first apoplectic apex of globalization and disease-a Sci-Fi story that’s losing the latter half of its hyphenation. So what are the unfamiliar patterns starting right now? How is travel shifting and how are people moving around? If you’re a PM selling a service, this new data should be at the front of your mind.
We could never build a scenario like this, even with the best machine learning! Covid-19 is the mother of all “fat tails.” Collect this massive trove of irregular data post-haste, using both quantitative and qualitative methods.
The initial customer survey strategy might not appear useful in the short term, but precise historical records of both decisions and their respective outcomes can drive scenario planning for at least two decades in the travel and service verticals.
Historical record keeping is imperative now for leaders (executives on down) to make both detailed decision journals (these should be both public for the org and private for future study) and annotated action logs. For example, this method is standard in naval expeditions, perhaps the best metaphor is the opening scene of Star Trek: TNG by Captain Picard saying the narration, “Captain’s Log, Star Date, Destination” formula.
Leaders should spur the rollout of a broad-based employee, stakeholder, and customer survey at routine intervals.
This historical record-keeping has proved hugely beneficial-or detrimental, depending on where your sympathies lie - in the past to strategic decision making. When steeped in the Vietnam crisis, the U.S. Department of Defense saw it had just this gap. The American Empire was in a Gordian knot of its own creation, a quagmire with very few optics to move forward. At least at the top-level, we find ourselves with a similar issue when facing Covid-19, a lack of cohesive data sets.
Despite its significant investment and military might, the U.S. Government was not making any progress on its strategic goals in Vietnam by the mid-1960s. The Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, who in the 1950s modernized Ford Motor Company in a data-driven way, was looking for evidence of how and why things were going so poorly. However, he could not find a centralized and comprehension report doing just that! There had been four administrations involved in the conflict by that time, so no one had the full picture. Thus the Gordian knot restricted with each new strategy the Defence Secretary tried -given the complexity on the ground. Optimization of one part of the strategy would only surface externalities somewhere else, driving a system-wide sub-optimization of the American efforts.
To gain a wider perspective, McNamara commissioned a study by the Rand Corporation to investigate how decisions were being made in Vietnam, and the quality of those decisions. McNamara’s goal was for historians and American policymakers to study this work to better inform their decision making in the future.
While these “Pentagon Papers” would also be McNamara’s downfall-in the view of the American public-when they leaked, they were an essential tool for both the U.S. Government and later the academy. The contribution of the “Pentagon Papers” to the academic study of the strategy was immense!
“History is written by the winners, and those that bother to write it down.” -unknown
While crisis teams often document what they do, these are often only small windows during a security, financial, or infrastructure event and isolated to certain teams. “Need to know” operational rules are essential to contain the leaking of sensitive information, but they also have a shadow side- the siloing of data.
We need a separate crisis team of “record keepers,’’ much like the Federal Works Projects Administration anthropology projects of the 1930s (see The Slave Narrative Collection or Pulitzer Prize-Winning Historian Studs Terkel for examples) who can collect all the data models at a 100,000 ft. level and can synthesize information across the economy, epidemiology, and news coverage into comprehensive narratives for overwhelmed technocrats. Think Studs Terkel meets a broader application of Steve Ballmer’s USAFacts.org tool.
We should prepare for when we want to do our own future “business” case study for what happened, where, and why. If data is the “new oil,” there is a lot of “new oil” around the world. Oil to forge “the soul of a new machine.”
What if something like this has already been in the works for months? As product managers in the travel industry across the world, are burning the midnight oil, to find this new data.
“The COVID-19 Travel Database is a free access database to support the travel industry through the reopening period, providing a single data source for travellers in a period of low travel confidence. It’s a project from the European COVID-19 Travel Alliance, formed by leading travel brands such as Barcelo Hotels, Booking.com, Eurowings, Flixmobility, Iberostar Hotels, KLM, Radisson Hotel Group and trivago. We believe that strong cooperation between market participants will help rebuild travel demand in a safe and sustainable manner. Specifically, we seek to help travellers explore destinations and enable them to make informed, confident and safe travel decisions.”
Booking.com and Trivago (w/ KLM, Radisson, and others) are leading the way out of the Covid-19 travel crisis. They are creating an institution for open source innovation, public-private agreements, and cross-sector partnerships. A centralized and free database of all travel data is being created for our local businesses-and our travelers-as they recover. With millions of jobs already gone in the hospitality industry, and possibly millions more, we will all need to come together. Now even the mom and pop shops of the travel industry can see the big data of the world-from your favorite small restaurant in Florence to the old couple running your favorite Palm Springs B&B. The tides are turning in favor of everyone. The AP (Associated Press) of Travel Data, at zero cost, is here. And it’s for the good of the entire world.
This is the first time in history the world’s travel data will be openly and dynamically shared for all of humanity, through an independent institution and outside of sole corporate governance. People traveling the world over will get up-to-date information across the entire travel stack -flights, hotels, rental cars, and restaurants. We can restore customer confidence, useful information drives out fear, and sunlight is the best disinfectant. Given this data will be open to the public, it will also cause a surge in academic research and startup innovation, both things we desperately need right now. Projects these travel giants will then hope to back.
When we travel again, you’ll have all the information you need. Let’s forge the future, share our data, and to quote the great astronaut, and Martian, Matt Damon, we’re “going to have to science the shit out of this,” together.
“Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions. You change direction but the sandstorm chases you. You turn again, but the storm adjusts. Over and over you play this out, like some ominous dance with death just before dawn. Why? Because this storm isn’t something that has nothing to do with you, This storm is you. Something inside you. So all you can do is give in to it, step right inside the storm, closing your eyes and plugging up your ears so the sand doesn’t get in, and walk through it, step by step. There’s no sun there, no moon, no direction, no sense of time. Just fine white sand swirling up the sky like pulverized bones.”
Kafka on the Shore
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