Thursday, August 26, 2010

Foreseeable Crises

This week we mark three milestones: the 90th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment, the 5th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the last combat troops just left Iraq. Disparate as these events appear, I actually think that there’s some interesting connections between them. These incongruent events have a common lesson about the impact of planning during times of crisis.

Crisis Management is a unique skill set. In my consulting business when people call it’s rarely because things are going well and they want to chat. Issues may have been simmering for a long time and then one day something happens that crystallizes all of the problems. And then we kick into action based on whatever circumstance has emerged.  The trick is to work on the underlying disease rather than the latest symptom.

Women had been seeking the vote for more than a century. The 19th Amendment states: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” August 26, 1920 the Amendment was certified after more than two years of votes from Congress and the States. This lengthy process, one of the great hallmarks of the US Constitution, requires an elaborate process to change the document. I am really grateful for this laborious effort because preparing to make a change to the governing document of the nation shouldn’t be a spontaneous action. The Republicans (42) and Democrats (22) have proposed 64 Amendments in this session of Congress alone! Only 27 have ever been added since 1776.  So far. 90 years ago there was just the one.

The Great War (WWI) was just finishing. The Industrial Revolution was underway. America was changing. It was in the midst of this turbulent environment that actually allowed for the Amendment to pass. I think it’s only because of the tectonic shifts in the social fabric of the United States at that time could such a contentious change occur.

I was brought into a company early in my career to handle the paying of bills. In surveying my cubicle I opened drawers and cabinets – and like the old jack-in-the-box – papers sprang out. Envelopes were piled up unopened. The phone rang incessantly. Outrage and venom spewed forth from individuals and companies who demanded payment. Six months had passed since regular payments had been made even though there was sufficient cash to pay the bills. When Executives needed a check they’d stand at my station and watch while I hand-typed the check for fear that the request would disappear. Chaos ruled. After a few weeks of 18-hour days and the implementation of standardized check-runs and other procedures everything stabilized. Introducing the dramatic change in day-to-day structure happened because of the chaos. Chaos was able to be managed because of the planned systems that ultimately eradicated the problems.

August 23, 2005 Mother Nature lashed the Gulf Coast with Hurricane Katrina. More than 1,800 died, 135 went missing and it has cost, so far, in excess of $80 billion. The airwaves, newspapers and magazines are full of before and after stories this week. They are compelling. People suffered, and perhaps needlessly. Here the chaos from an unexpected event requires a different level of response. The Government response (Federal, State, Local) might become a case study in what not to do. News organizations were able to get into the area and help rescue people while rescue organizations were bickering over jurisdictions.

In the years that have followed the region has emerged from chaos. The physical, emotional and financial damage may never fully recover. In its place, however, has been innovation and resurrection. Celebrities have helped creates hundreds of new eco-friendly homes. New businesses have sprouted up to serve the needs of a changed community. It’s sporadic because the same entities that failed during the Hurricane are charged with planning the renaissance. Anticipating disaster and planning for rebuilding is the lesson which hasn’t been fully realized.

I’ve learned to back up my data. It’s a common-sense lesson that we all should do. Granted I’m a little neurotic about it using an online system that has 4 redundant copies under high encryptions spread throughout the globe insuring that my bits of 1’s and 0’s are retrievable. A client’s disaster taught me. Their daily backup system failed but nobody noticed the warning messages on the screen, they just regularly changed out the tapes and hit reset to the software. Then the server died. All the data was lost, irrecoverably. Then the backup tapes were blank. It took months to rebuild the basic data infrastructure of the business – during which time we were able to apply efficiencies that we otherwise would never have been able to. It was classic making lemonade out of lemons – but it was so preventable.

Prevention is boring, costs time and money and more often than not isn’t needed because things tend to work out. But in instances where they don’t – such as with my client, or on a larger scale Katrina, prevention is a game-changing differential.

This week the last U.S. combat forces left Iraq, bringing the 7-year military effort to an end. (Well it’s not quite “Mission Accomplished” and I’m not quite sure I believe combat is over, but let’s go with what the President has announced.) The merits (or lack thereof) of the invasion and occupation are the subject of another blog at another time. The crisis that Iraq became was one largely of our own making and is rooted in this issue of prevention. The U.S., for the first – and I hope only – time in our history preemptively attacked another country based on a threat, real or perceived. The theory was that additional attacks on the U.S. would be stopped if Iraq was stopped. The theory didn’t quite pan out and, in fact, the attempt at prevention has resulted in thousands of deaths and cost so far over $1 trillion, with many more trillions to be spent in providing care of our soldiers. In trying to prevent some deaths, many others resulted. That was quite a choice, but it was made, and made in our name whether we individually agreed or not. Regardless of the choice – the result was fully foreseeable. The site Truth about War is an extraordinary site that is frozen in time from its creation in 2003 that foresaw nearly all of the consequences that ultimately materialized.

Good planning is equally foreseeable. Crises change us based on the circumstances at a particular moment in time. How we as people adapt, evolve and respond to the crisis is what defines us as individuals and as a people.

Are you planning?

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