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Apr 28, 202011:45 AMMaking Madison

with Buckley Brinkman

Reopen? Goodwill and some Wisconsin pragmatism, please!

The COVID-19 virus plunged us into a health and economic crisis two months ago. Now, we need to plot a reasonable course that reopens our economy without sacrificing our health and safety. It’s a tough balance, reopening versus eliminating the virus. As usual, extreme positions on both ends of the spectrum have it wrong. The way forward provides no simple answers and will be difficult and uncertain. Our success depends on good data and voices of reason. Like with any difficult endeavor, there will be mistakes. We need to tolerate those mistakes, provided they’re accompanied by a reasonable recovery plan.

Opening the economy poses a tough balance where neither extreme position is viable. If we wait for a vaccine, there will be nothing to save. If we reopen immediately, there will soon be no one well enough to work or buy what we make. The balance also contains contrasting conditions in rural and urban environments. Fewer cases have been reported in our rural areas; however, these locations also have limited health care facilities and older populations. Even a small outbreak would push those systems beyond capacity. Our cities face the reverse challenge — the vast majority of the reported infections and also the higher capacity to deal with them. Bordering states and their actions add more complication to our situation.

In reopening the economy, we shift the responsibility for public safety from our public institutions to the private sector. This is the first time in our lifetimes that our success in a crisis will be directly proportional to our willingness to put others first. At the macro level, that means data-defined conditions to allow opening and uniform safety standards to keep us open. It also requires patience to create the conditions for those standards to be met.

At the micro level, businesses must support the safety standards by putting safety first in their own operations and applying peer pressure for others to meet high standards. This will be critical to build trust that it’s safe to participate in the economy again both as workers and patrons. As individuals, we must be willing to go beyond just helping others to protecting them, as well. That means following the rules and being willing to take those extra steps that protect the most vulnerable. We must be able to trust that our organizations and our fellow Wisconsinites will do the right thing.

Next, all of us must listen for responsible voices in the cacophony. Responsible voices cite verified data and bring practical ideas to light. These voices deliver inclusive messages, pulling us all in the same direction. Another characteristic is their willingness to be wrong. They engage with those around them to refine their views, continually making them stronger and better. Finally, these people use lots of “ands” and very few “buts.” Their ideas and statements seek to build on the ideas of others rather than marginalizing them.

Fortunately, we have many of those responsible voices in Wisconsin. Let me give you three examples in my life. First, Dr. John Raymond from the Medical College of Wisconsin continues to provide a clear view of the situation and possible recovery. His daily updates inform my actions and perspectives. Second, Dan Ariens is a terrific example of a leader fighting for his business AND taking care of his people. He understands the challenge and may be frustrated by the situation. Still, Dan maintains a steady and pragmatic view of the future. Finally, WEDC Secretary Missy Hughes maintains an accessible position, engaging in multiple arenas around the critical issues. Her willingness to listen and provide clear information makes it easier to understand a very fluid situation. Be sure to find your responsible voices. They will make your life calmer and provide a bit of future direction.

The near future will be difficult. We still don’t know much about COVID-19 — and much of what we thought we knew has been proven wrong. This virus is neither as benign as the flu, nor a universal death sentence. Recovery will require uncommon actions. Our leaders will need to cooperate, set high performance standards, and take responsibility for the situation. Finding someone to blame will not get us out of this predicament. The rest of us also have a role to play, following all the guidelines and changing our behavior. Everyone will be creating a new normal. It’s our collective decision whether we will take the necessary actions and show the required tolerance that will make that new normal better than today.

It’s a tough path out. The best route will give neither extreme camp a win, nor make them happy. We will need our actions to reflect our most important values. In Wisconsin, I believe that means being pragmatic in a way that brings everyone possible through the crisis in the best condition possible. We’re about engaging the best thinking around solid data while using good judgement. We also recognize well-intentioned people make mistakes, especially in murky environments like this. Wisconsin’s best people tolerate those mistakes when they’re followed up with corrective adjustments.

“FORWARD!” That’s our motto. This has always meant that we address our toughest situations together in the best possible way. This time will be no different. We will make it through this crisis and come out on the other side stronger and wiser.

Stay safe and healthy!

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About This Blog

Buckley Brinkman is executive director and CEO of the Wisconsin Center for Manufacturing & Productivity and writes about the manufacturing sector in Greater Madison and throughout Wisconsin. He has a breadth of experience in helping companies drive growth, world-class competitiveness, and performance excellence, and has led efforts to save dozens of operations in the U.S. by finding new ways for them to compete. A Wisconsin native, Brinkman holds a business degree from the University of Wisconsin and an MBA from the Harvard Business School.

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