09 June 2010

Why we wait...and fail

I am frustrated when the blame for an event like the BP spill falls on the shoulders of any one person. I thought it was silly when Bush bore the brunt of the blame for the response to Katrina, and I don't think the continued failure to fix the oil leak is solely Obama's fault. The president does is not omnipotent or omniscient.

Both of these examples do demonstrate lapses of leadership. Obama, for a while (and still to some extent) avoided the negativity cast upon Bush, thanks to a more forgiving press. That appears to be mostly over.

I don't want to dwell on Obama's failings as a leader (although there are some great articles that explain why he is having so much difficulty, like this one from Peggy Noonan and this one from Dorothy Rabinowitz).

The point of this post was really to highlight this great op-ed piece from the Washington Post. Richard Posner writes about how a combination of common factors lead to bad outcomes. They are not limited by ideology, age, or intelligence. He explains it as follows, in his words-

  1. when fixing things after the fact seems like a feasible alternative to preventing disaster in the first place
  2. when the people responsible have a short time horizon
  3. when the risk is uncertain in the sense that no objective probability can be attached to it.

I like his reasoning. We ought to consider these inputs and motivations before and after disasters occur. We can't always prevent a Deepwater Horizon or Financial Crisis, but our responses can be more decisive and effective.

3 comments:

Andrew said...

We have two mantras at work that I think apply:

"There is always time to do it right"

and

"Do it safely or not at all"

Easy enough to say, but the company culture fully buys into this. Any employee (even a contractor) has what we call Stop Work Authority. If an employee believes it is unsafe, they have the right to stop the work. I have seen it work.

Good article. Nevertheless, predicting uncertainty is difficult. We try, but who is to say that even the best company does not have a failure.

Andrew said...

We have two mantras at work that I think apply:

"There is always time to do it right"

and

"Do it safely or not at all"

Easy enough to say, but the company culture fully buys into this. Any employee (even a contractor) has what we call Stop Work Authority. If an employee believes it is unsafe, they have the right to stop the work. I have seen it work.

Good article. Nevertheless, predicting uncertainty is difficult. We try, but who is to say that even the best company does not have a failure.

Lowdogg said...

Your company definitely enjoys a better safety record. After all of BP's troubles in the past, you'd think they would have picked up on it. I wonder how much of this is the legacy of a state-owned enterprise?

I agree that some failures will happen. In the case of a Katrina or the oil spill, I think the best companies or leaders will go nuts to make sure the failure doesn't get worse.

Kind of like the classic Tylenol recall example. Any question of safety? Yank them all. Go beyond the requirement.