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COVID-19 Pandemic Adaptation and Planning via Neuroscience and Behavioral Economics

Insights for association executives

So many association executives failed to prepare effectively for the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. You probably observed many issues, ranging from canceling events last minute to not knowing what to tell members inquiring about quality information about the impact of the pandemic on their industry. As a neuroscientist whose cutting-edge expertise is in disaster avoidance, decision-making, strategic planning and risk management, and a frequent consultant, coach, speaker and trainer for associations, in this article, I share about how association executives can best adapt to and plan for the long-term impact of the pandemic.

Why Our Brain Causes Us to Be Underprepared for Major Disruptions

First, we need to understand the causes of the initial failures to evaluate accurately the impact of COVID-19.

We suffer from many dangerous judgment errors that researchers in cognitive neuroscience and behavioral economics like myself call cognitive biases, which undermined our ability to address the pandemic. These mental blindspots result from a combination of our evolutionary background and specific structural features in how our brains are wired.

Specifically, you need to watch out for three cognitive biases.

  1. The normalcy bias causes our brains to assume things will keep going as they have been — normally — and evaluate the near-term future based on our short-term past experience. As a result, we underestimate drastically both the likelihood of a serious disruption occurring and the impact of one if it does occur.
  2. When we make plans, we naturally believe that the future will go according to plan. That wrong-headed mental blindspot, the planning fallacy, results in us not preparing for contingencies and problems, both predictable ones and unknown unknowns.
  3. Last but not least, we suffer from the tendency to prioritize the short term, and undercount the importance of medium and long-term outcomes. Known as hyperbolic discounting, this cognitive bias is especially bad for evaluating the potential long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Realistic Pessimistic Pandemic Preparation

To address these cognitive biases in relation to the pandemic, you have to adopt a realistic and even pessimistic perspective. We have no way of coping with the pandemic save a combination of shutdowns and social distancing. We will see wave-like periods of tight restrictions that result in less cases, then loosened restrictions with spikes of cases, and then again tightened restrictions.

Such waves will last until we find an effective vaccine and vaccinate at least the more vulnerable demographics, which in the most optimistic scenario will not be until the beginning of 2022. If things don’t go perfectly, it might be more like 2023 or 2024: that’s the moderate scenario. In more pessimistic scenarios, we might not have an effective vaccine until 2027 or even later.

Does that feel unreal to you? That’s the cognitive biases talking. We still don’t have an effective vaccine for the flu, as our current version is only about 50 percent effective in preventing infections.

Fundamentally Change Your Internal Business Model

Hope is not a strategy: while you may hope for the optimistic scenario, you need to prepare for the pessimistic one.

How would you adapt if, until 2027, you were facing waves of tighter restrictions, when your members can’t meet face-to-face and your staff need to stay at home, with looser restrictions, when smaller chapter meetings are allowed but national conferences with over 100 people are still largely forbidden?

You need to fundamentally change your business model, internal and external.

First, look at your internal systems, processes, and internal organization.

While the vast majority of associations have switched to virtual work to some extent, you have to make virtual work the default for the next several years for as many employees as physically possible. Even during looser periods, avoid in-person staff meetings: about half of all those infected with COVID-19 don’t have any significant symptoms and don’t know they’re sick, and many associations had COVID-19 sweep through employee ranks due to such meetings.

Having made the switch, you have to address the specific challenges associated with shifting from in-office to virtual teams. Offer training for your employees on effective communication and problem resolution in virtual settings. Set up online collaboration tools such as Trello, Asana, Microsoft Teams, Zoom and Slack. Provide funding for employees to improve their at-home office setup, from computers hardened against hacking to standing desks. Give them guidance and coaching on setting up distraction-free workspaces and staying motivated and engaged while isolated from fellow employees. Create structures to hold employees accountable, such as a weekly written report of accomplishments.

Fundamentally Change Your External Business Model

Next, focus on your external business model.

How will you provide your educational offerings? Fortunately, there are many virtual synchronous and asynchronous formats available. Yet associations are using them in a very limited fashion, mainly to offer their members free or low-cost one-hour webinars. This model is not going to fly for the next five years, both from the perspective of helping members get the education they need or for associations to maintain their budgets.

While many association executives fear that members will not stay engaged with longer webinars, my experience as a professional trainer who regularly presents day-long virtual trainings shows that’s just not true. You simply need presenters who are used to presenting virtually and have solid experience with doing so, ones who use a variety of group activities and online engagement tools that keep audience members excited, engaged and energized. Make sure to ask for samples of multiple recorded webinars, references and descriptions of techniques used by presenters who you’re hiring to provide webinars longer than 60 minutes.

You should also explore asynchronous education options. Get a Learning Management System (LMS) and start developing content for it. Have experienced online educators do so, as it takes a specific skill set to provide effective asynchronous educational content. These offerings will help you get an ongoing and fairly passive income stream while helping your members get the education they need.

Use free and low-cost 60-minute webinars to upsell members on both day-long virtual trainings and asynchronous trainings. Also, develop thought-leadership content in video and audio form. I’m shocked by how few associations have their own podcasts and videocasts. Likewise, adopt best practices in using social media, which will become much more important in reaching members.

Next, how will you replace in-person networking and community building with virtual options? Some associations have taken the wise steps of having local chapters switch their meetings from monthly to weekly videoconference sessions. That helps members both network with each other and build community together. It helps members to feel that there’s a safe professional port in this storm they’re facing.

Likewise, provide weekly meetings with a staff member from the association for Q&A about COVID-19. Lots of members will want a source of reliable information about how COVID-19 is impacting the industry, and you need to be that source.

If you don’t have a virtual mentor program set up right now, this is a good time to set one up. All industries are disrupted to some extent or other, and your members will be looking for career guidance. You can help them get that guidance through volunteer mentors.

If you don’t have a LinkedIn group and a Facebook group, create both and get staff and eventually volunteers to moderate them. Members can help each other answer pressing concerns or discuss developments, and you can get the pulse of your members.

Your staff will need to be trained in using virtual methods to cultivate existing relationships and build new ones with your members, and with other important external stakeholders – officials, suppliers, service providers and so on. Make sure to provide that training, it will be worth it. Keep in mind the silver lining that, by establishing new relationships via virtual means, you are expanding your geographical market of potential members


Of course, you’ll want to adapt these broad guidelines to your own needs. Right now, you need to sit down and revise your strategic plans in a way that accounts for the cognitive biases associated with COVID-19. By taking these steps, you’ll protect your association from our deeply inadequate gut reactions in the face of such slow-moving train wrecks.


About the author:
Dr. Gleb Tsipursky empowered thousands of professionals and organizations to avoid business disasters as the chief executive officer of Disaster Avoidance Experts. DAE improves dramatically the bottom line for clients by addressing potential threats, maximizing unexpected opportunities and synergizing employee goals with organizational priorities through a proprietary methodology based on cutting-edge behavioral economics research combined with best practices from pioneering organizations. Tsipursky's expertise in these areas comes from more than 20 years of consulting and coaching for businesses and nonprofits. He also has a strong research background with more than 15 years in academia. Leaders have benefited greatly from his writings on avoiding business disasters, most notably from his national bestseller The Truth Seeker’s Handbook: A Science-Based Guide. He has published more than 400 articles and has been featured in more than 350 interviews. A leading expert on avoiding professional disasters, Tsipursky has more than two decades of professional speaking experience across three continents for associations and companies, with enthusiastic client testimonials and references. Tsipursky's website is; his email is

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