EMBA HSG Alumni's "Fiirabig" Event

"Muddling through makes sense in complex situations"

Solving problems that are not fully understood: this was the challenge that the COVID-19 pandemic presented to companies like Moderna as well as the Swiss Federal Council. Speaking at the EMBA HSG Alumni's "Fiirabig" after-work event, Dr Roman Boutellier illustrated what can be learnt from it.

Formulate clear goals and then develop clear strategies: strategic planning is a top priority in many companies, demanding lots of time and resources. “That doesn’t work for complex situations,” said Dr Roman Boutellier at the “Fiirabig” after-work event held by EMBA HSG Alumni at the Marriott Hotel in Zurich. “As managers, we are forced to solve problems that we don’t entirely understand.” Such situations, he said, call for feeling one’s way to solutions. “Here, the description of the path is the best description of the goal,” referring to Charles Lindblom, father of the “muddling through” theory. Boutellier knows whereof he speaks. During his career, the mathematician was active in both the private sector as CEO of SIG and in academia, including a full professorship for Innovation and Technology Management at the University of St. Gallen and ETH Zurich. Today, he sits on the boards of many institutions.

How the vaccine was available so quickly

Starting with Moderna, Boutellier illustrated how quickly the company was able to sequence the COVID-19 DNA after the December 2020 outbreak in Wuhan and develop a first prototype of the vaccine by 15 January. Moderna started clinical studies on 16 March and the first doses were administered to the public on 8 December 2020. Swissmedic gave the green light to Lonza for the vaccine’s production in January 2021. How was that possible? “It was the 10th vaccine that we had worked on,” Boutellier quoted Stéphane Bancel, CEO of Moderna, as saying. The company has existed since 2010, the messenger RNA can be easily modified and, with 150 components, scaling up is quite simple. “We’ve had this information for over 10 years but no one wanted to invest in it,” said Boutellier. The breakthrough came because Moderna was able to modularise through the use of lipid nanoparticles. Changes could be made quickly to the mRNA itself, like a programme.

“Rightly muddling through”

Boutellier then turned his talk to the Swiss Federal Council’s “muddling through”. Using a thought experiment, he convincingly proved his argument that this had been the correct course of action, referring to Charles Lindblom’s “muddling through” theory. Acting in complex, uncertain situations – such as climate change – involves taking advantage of opportunities in small steps, feeling one’s way to solutions and continuously incorporating new insights. “With lots of proposals for reconsideration and iterations, always knowing that there are still many unknowns,” said Boutellier. Would it have been better for the Federal Council to announce a goal in March with the targeted number of deaths and a defined GDP downturn? Looking at the current situation and the incomprehension of certain scientists as to why they are not being followed, Boutellier held firm to his belief that people are not convinced by science alone. What about when their findings contradict one another? Science needs the support of personal experience.

The Alumni made use of the event for a lively exchange of ideas. Co-presidents Stefan Stübi and Daniela Decurtins used the opportunity to mention various planned activities, including a refresher programme and a mentoring programme, and noted that the next continuing education event is scheduled for 25 February 2022 in Zurich.

Author: Daniela Decurtins

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