Book Review: The Covid-19 Survival Guide by Fons Trompenaars

Book Review: The Covid-19 Survival Guide by Fons Trompenaars
The Covid-19 Survival Guide: Dilemmas and Solutions
Genre: Management

EBook | 136 pp. | | | 1st edition
Buy on Amazon
3.5 rating

The Covid-19 Survival Guide is an instant eBook written by Fons Trompenaars and crew and tackles the effects of Covid19 on organisations from a cultural dilemma and leadership point of view. The author is known for having proposed a Model of National Culture Differences in his 1994 book Riding the Waves of Culture. The model, which partially integrates, partially differ from Hofstede’s one, is based on five cultural dimensions. From the beginning, it was explicitly oriented at making sense of business relationship in the context of culture.

It is also the first cultural model I have used in my consulting career. When I worked in Summit/TMI Italy, we used a cultural audit approach that was based on Trompenaars research but applied on the culture of an organisation instead of on the intercultural element, which shows the flexibility of the model itself also in organisational contexts.

In this short book, Trompenaars has applied his seven-dimensional approach to the Covid19 crisis, trying to explain how different culture reacted to the crisis, and how each organisation can exploit or temper some of the cultural dimensions to better cope with the crisis. It provides several different examples, from how different cultures reacted to the pandemics itself, with varying degrees of success, to how organisations responded to business restrictions. Much focus is given, particularly on Leadership.

Culture and Covid19

The book is structured around a number of dilemmas, and how each cultural approach tackles each of these. From the beginning, the author is paramount in explaining that the solution resides in reconciling what seem to be opposites. In this, the author immediately sees more possibility for Asiatic cultures to cope with the dilemmas than western ones.

The ravages of this pandemic could change us all profoundly. It could lead the way in looking at the dilemmas from a new perspective, harnessing values that are being adopted in different parts of the world.

Fons Trompenaars, The Covid-19 Survival Guide

Cracking the Line

A general suggestion that he proposes to sort out all dilemmas is to “crack the line”, by introducing a spiralling question: how can we get more of Value X by using the opposing value Y and vice versa.

Fig. 1: Cracking the Line, a way to combine the opposites. Source: Fons Trompenaars, The Covid-19 Survival Guide
Fig. 1: Cracking the Line, a way to combine the opposites. Source: Fons Trompenaars, The Covid-19 Survival Guide

In this, he syncs himself with many of the thought leaders that always push for paradoxical management, ambidexterity and the capability to encompass opposites in leadership answers indeed.

The Seven Dilemmas

The book is organised in seven chapters, each analysing one of the dilemmas. They are all based on the cultural dimensions of Trompenaar’s model, and can also be seen through the lens of a critical question.

Cultural DimensionKey QuestionDilemma
1. Universalism vs ParticularismWhat is more important, rules or exceptions?Global causes vs Local answers
2. Individualism vs CommunitarianismDo we function as individuals or in teams?Individual freedom vs Collective solidarity
3. Neutral vs AffectiveDo we express our emotions or not?Controlling emotions vs Showing emotions
4. Specific vs DiffuseDo we separate different life spaces like work and private or not?Specific issues vs The whole system
5. Achievement vs AscriptionIs status derived from what we do or who we are?Challenging authorities vs Respecting authorities
6. Short Term vs Long TermDo we focus on immediate results or larger visions?Short-term measures vs Long-term immunity
7. Internal Control vs External ControlDo we control our environment or is the environment controlling us?Controlling the virus vs Going with the flow
Table 1: The seven critical dilemmas. Source: Fons Trompenaars, The Covid-19 Survival Guide

The idea is to develop a “map” of the resilience of an organisation. A web app is available to the reader to plot its map of resilience, comparing it to your country and society.

The first dilemma looks at how important it is to have universal answers, yet also looks at how we manage exceptions locally. As we have seen, cultures react differently at the country level. Although there has been a generally accepted way of working, mandated by the WHO recommendations, some countries acted differently. In some areas, localism emerged as a reaction to lockdown. The question is not what is right or wrong, but instead, how we can ensure to combine the best local practices in a global response.

The second dilemma is a typical issue also beyond Covid19. How do we ensure that people feel responsible for the whole and not just their individuality? Many reactions to social distancing have shown different ways of interpretations. How can we best encompass both aspects?

The third dilemma involves emotions and their relationship with reason. Covid19 has for sure stressed the connection that in many countries, official science has had with emotions. How much do we trust science? How much do we trust employees working from home? A theme that is challenging many organisations.

The fourth dilemma concerns many aspects of the current Covid19 situation, from how we pursue lockdown, to the big privacy question raised by tracing apps. Again, culture has a profound impact on the answer, and also, technology adoption needs to be framed in this regard.

The fifth dilemma looks in the eye the issue of Leadership. We have seen how populist regimes have been challenged by the covid19 situation because they are often missing the link of truly supportive Leadership. A solution is to focus on servant Leadership as a way to manage the opposites in this case.

The sixth dilemma is at the core of how companies react to the “black swan” situation, and how an emergent strategy is the only way to reconcile disruption and planning.

Finally, the seventh dilemma addresses the relationship with nature, a vital element of understanding the Virus. In our case, a possible solution is to bring the ecosystem in the organisation, accepting that we need to co-design solutions with all stakeholders.

The Covid-19 Survival Guide Kindle Preview


The problem with books that are issued in the context of an event that is evolving, such as the Covid19 situation, is that they are immediately partial, as the situation develops. For example, I feel the book doesn’t fully capture the case in the US, which, at the day of publication, was still assessing its reaction to the pandemic. Moreover, a few too many typos in the text show the speed at which this book was published.

These facts, however, does not invalidate the usefulness of the reflection that Trompenaars and his team make. Covid19 has brought disruptions in the way we plan and think. And we need new lenses to intercept the reality. His approach based on his successful cultural model provides a possible answer to many of the dilemmas that we are facing now, but that will effectively mark the future we are creating.

The Covid-19 Survival Guide is an excellent quick read to make us think of how the future will be changed by the actions (or non-actions) we will be taking today.

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The Covid-19 Survival Guide: Dilemmas and Solutions
Genre: Management | Rating: 3.5/5
By Fons Trompenaars
EBook | 136 pp. | | 19/05/2020 | 1st edition
Buy on Amazon
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