Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 24, 2010

Failure is Fertilizer

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Mark Chubb on March 24, 2010

Much of what passes for recovery falls under the broad heading “learning from our mistakes.” This approach to learning leaves a lot to be desired.

For starters, when we examine our failures, we almost inevitably focus more on the consequences than the causes. When we do consider causes, we tend to focus only on execution errors, forgetting that mistakes arise from failures of intention, failures of execution, or both.  And, finally, our efforts to address failures all too often tempt us to look for someone to blame before we have identified something we should change.

When problems that lead us down the path to failure have no simple or clearly identifiable solutions, we often assume that no one is to blame. This overlooks the fact that we often had a choice over the path we took, or whether to embark on the journey at all.

Accepting responsibility for recovery begins by acknowledging that failure is like fertilizer. A little bit can help us grow. But too much can kill us.

A good gardener only applies fertilizer when it is indicated, and, even then, she carefully selects the fertilizer to match the soil conditions, climate and a host of other variables. When we look to learn from failure, it would behoove us to take similar care and exercise considerable discretion.

Here are ten principles that can help us approach recovery from a more positive and productive perspective:

1.     Acknowledge the loss. Do not start by assuming the future will be better simply because the worst has already happened. Allow people time to grieve and take note of the things they valued about the people and places they lost. These values figure prominently when it comes to deciding a vision of the future.

2.     Avoid the temptation to blame others. We would all like to believe someone else is responsible for our misfortune. When we treat those affected by disaster like victims rather than recognizing them as resources, that is effectively what we are doing. It is too easy and far too convenient to assume anyone experiencing a disaster either had it coming or is no longer capable of taking care of himself. No single decision or action produces a disaster; it takes a community. Leave it to the community to decide when (or even if) it’s appropriate to lay blame. In the immediate aftermath of an event, those directly affected by a disaster usually have much higher priorities and would rather get to work rebuilding their lives.

3.     Question assumptions. When we look at the effects of a disaster, it is far too easy to allow ourselves to assume others could see it coming as clearly as we see it after the fact. Even well-prepared communities that have carefully assessed their hazards and vulnerabilities cannot foresee with accuracy or precision how any particular part of the community or its infrastructure will perform when disaster strikes. Anyone who thinks otherwise is itching for a fight.

4.     Account for the effects of actions and intentions. Our assumptions tend to inform our intentions. When our assumptions prove incorrect, we should consider the untoward consequences unexpected only insofar as they are unwanted. Unless we recognize and take responsibility for our original intentions and the latent effects of the decisions and actions they influenced, we are liable to lose the respect of others even if we do not repeat our mistakes.

5.     Assess what worked. Murphy may be an optimist, but he is not an emergency manager. Even when it seems that everything that could go wrong did go wrong, a surprising number of things probably worked well or at least better than expected in light of what happened. In fact, most disasters result from a series or chain of small errors the absence of any one of which could either have prevented or at least minimized the subsequent consequences. Many big things often go right even when the tumblers fall into place and allow a small error to unlock the door opening everyone up to a major disaster. When the cause or consequences were foreseen or even voiced but not acted upon, it can be especially important to acknowledge the courage of those who came forward and the correctness of their actions.

6.     Analyze alternatives. In the heat of disaster response, officials rarely consider multiple possibilities or competing courses of action. Even when the situation seems clear and everyone agrees on the goals, the stakes are often too high, the resources too constrained, and the time pressure too great to make good the enemy of good enough. As the dust settles, literally, and ambiguity gives way to awareness of the task ahead, decision-makers must avoid falling into the trap of making decisions about recovery the same way they made them during response. If alternatives are not immediately apparent, it is almost always a sign that we are trying to move too quickly or have too few people involved in framing the problem, much less offering potential solutions.

7.     Access local knowledge and listen to aspirations. Like a family confronting the grieving process, communities often need rituals and structure to help them embrace the changes that come from the passing of a loved one. The early phases of a disaster response are too hectic to provide this structure, but as the response winds down and recovery begins, officials need to recognize that involving the people affected by the disaster in decisions about their future begins with simple questions. Many of these are mundane questions like those surrounding a funeral such as burial or cremation, the location of a memorial plot, picking songs for the funeral or memorial service and a designating a charity to receive memorial gifts. The answers guiding individual preferences about such matters often reflect the local culture and customs. As time goes by, people will begin to take charge of their lives again, and they should be encouraged to do so at their own pace. If you listen carefully, you can tell how far long they have come by the sorts of aspirations they express for their futures.

8.     Act with local assent. Aside from the stark reminder of our vulnerability to forces greater than ourselves, disasters remind us how much we depend on one another for the simplest things. When an individual or community asks for help, it does not give up its right to make decisions for itself, especially about matters that have a direct impact on its safety, health or welfare. Too much aid is conditioned either on evidence of need or donor expectations. Giving should make both the donor and the recipient feel good about themselves. Real giving comes not from an open hand, but from an open mind and an open heart. Leaving decisions about how aid is dispensed and what it gets spent on with those who receive the help rather than those who lend a hand should go without saying, but it doesn’t. If we are wise enough to leave well enough alone and let people make decisions for themselves, they will often surprise us by asking for less than we are prepared to give, using it more widely than we could, doing better work than we expect and in the end getting back on their feet faster and fitter.

9.     Anchor all changes in community capital. One of the best ways to assure donors that their resources will be used wisely is to leverage community capital. Even the poorest communities have vast and diverse stores of capital, many of which remain under appreciated before a disaster and therefore unrecognized after one occurs. Almost everyone appreciates the importance of financial and material capital, and the importance of natural capital to the development of communities and their economies is well known. But none of these resources will produce meaningful gains in community welfare without robust stores of human and social capital. If nothing else, disasters present an ideal opportunity to develop people and rally them around a cause bigger than themselves. Sustainable development cannot occur unless communities use their resources to become more resilient.

10. Atone and attest. Even when communities see no value in laying blame for a disaster at the feet or any one person or institution, they cannot move on without accepting individual and collective responsibility for the failures that left them vulnerable in the first place. Any successful recovery requires people to make amends for such errors and affirm their intention to do things that reflect the lessons they learned from the last disaster.

If failure in the form of disaster is like fertilizer, then disaster recovery must take account of the additional steps required to grow more resilient communities. With these ten principles in mind, it should be clear that aerating the ground, selecting our seeds carefully, casting them freely, watering them regularly and sharing responsibility for the weeding and the harvesting are essential to success.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

March 24, 2010 @ 12:41 am

Mark! Again a wonderful post! And thanks for coming back to US and surrendering the attractions of N.Z. Again the limitations of cause and effect analysis from the world of science demonstrated to have limitations.
Item #8 is always of interest to me since self-appointed community leaders (neither elected nor respected by even a slim majority) often hold captive a community to their wishes for the future. A tough call but perhaps public outreach and involvement which FEMA is so weak doing [or at least was during my time from 1979-1999] results in poor recovery efforts. Even now the danger of elitism, discrimination, and dominance of military style “ordering” of recovery is a huge problem.

It might be of help just to review also the fact that the American legal system with its tort regime [a tort is a civil injury inflicted on someone for which compensation is owed]has created spillover effects in its chain of causation analysis just as the world of science “Cause and effect” underpinnings of the scientific method.
What is that “tort” regime?
First, that a standard of care is owed the public or its members!
Second, that there has been a violation of that standard of care!
Third, that there has been an injury!
Fourth, that the injury was caused by the violation of the standard of care!
Fifth, that the breech of the standard of care can be calculated as measure of the damages caused by that breech–in other words how much of the injury relates to the standard of care? And of course one of the leading defenses of tort liability–contributory negligence by the person injured.
All of the above discussion can be paralled to some degree to Mark’s analysis except perhaps the grieving and atonement portions. But when dealing with humanity those factors must as Mark suggests be accomodated.
What unfortunately is often made clear during a disaster is that economic benefits provided to certain portions of our society were NOT returned in developing more community resilience but in fact undermined reslience. Installation and retrofitting of hurricane straps on roof joints is one tiny tiny indicator of how mitigation efforts are often avoided for the most miniscule of costs.

Again having once again learned more about Hait–my finding out that not a single water or sewer treatment plant existed in country BEFORE the earthquake makes me realize that most of the aid given by bilateral aid or even multilateral development aid was designed by those with bondholders in mind not the people of Haiti. Look again to Haiti because Mark’s analysis in this post stands up very well there. And of course my conclusion is that an international standard of care–called human rights–has long been violated in Haiti by its own leadership and by the international community especially the US. There clearly are exceptions like Paul Farmer, Harvard M.D. and PhD, Partner In Health that utilizes Haitians to the extent possible- but the number of those visiting the disaster and not working the disaster seems problematic. When will the people and government of the US see Haiti as a US domestic disaster? tttoaaueweerwerea

Comment by Ann W

March 24, 2010 @ 9:17 am

I had never considered the possibility of certain resources or preparations that could be used or made. I do feel that protecting Haiti and getting them back on their feet is important. Their proximity to the U.S.; the possibility of desperate, illegal persons making their way here; the drug community that is prevelant there. I do feel it is in the best interest of the U.S. to get Haiti more on the way to recovery and to help restore civility. Plant and Garden Blog

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

March 24, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

I would like to someone focus on the next steps and constructive solution to past deficiencies.

Comment by Mark Chubb

March 24, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

Claire, I’m not entirely sure I understand what you are looking for. Can you be more specific?

If you’re asking me what lessons I would take from Katrina, I am not your guy. For starters, I was overseas and have no direct experience of that disaster, its aftermath, or the response and recovery efforts. Besides, as I’m trying to make clear, I’m not much of a fan of looking to things that went wrong for ideas about how to do things right.

I much prefer to look at efforts that have proven more or less successful. Charleston, SC’s response to and recovery from Hurricane Hugo strike me as a good example of this sort of situation.

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

March 24, 2010 @ 5:58 pm

I am trying hard to find and share useful experiences and analyses regarding long term recovery from disasters, at the community level. Right now I run both a website and a blog with that intention.

We know recovery is not understood, researched, or implemented effectively. What can we all do about it?

Comment by christopher bellavita

March 25, 2010 @ 12:49 am

Mark — can you clarify what you mean by “failure?” I understand (i think) what you mean by things going wrong. But what — in the context of your post — is failure?

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 25, 2010 @ 12:49 am

Just note for the record no two economists seem able to agree on when the US economy is in recovery! Perhaps they could develop a 12 step program that would win an Economics NOBEL PRIZE! I believe one in that arena was awarded recently for the idea that sellers always knew more about the sale item than the buyer. CAVEAT EMPTOR? Some would argue the 20th century was the age of the Pyschology guru but perhaps a good argument could be made that it was the age of the infliction on the many by the few (economists) or was that the lawyers?

Comment by christopher tingus

March 25, 2010 @ 7:12 am

When it comes to economists – my mentor – Roubini! A U-shaped recession and a visit soon to more hardship….

As far as Haiti, offered 8,000 portable water purification units just after the 12 Jan and a practical and permanent housing solution w/solar and rainwater retention package…yet to distribute while the Haitians sit in the mud as rainy season means more anguish.

I agree if in Charleston versus New Orleans or Haiti, a differing response. Isn’t it intersting that China had six-hundred relief workers on the ground so quickly now watching the US, EU and global efforts turn their cheek and the Chinese making strides everywhere.

In Africa, where my representation is substantial in providing expert teams capable of addressing $50million-$250million wastewater and water purification development projects and not a call despite offering the same for Haiti. Working with the International Red Cross and Southern Command, hats off to these folks for their earnest efforts to manuever the void in political leadership and outright corruption. Infrastructure development, housing all a necessity now! (I – we – can’t expect much from the US Congress in cohesive, bi-partisan decison making and whether Homeland Security folks or anyone else who can protect these idiots, security should be heightened for the ongoing talk here on Main Street USA everywhere you go is so derogatory towards the “entrusted” legislators….)

Paul Farmer standing in the rain in Haiti, not Al Gore, should receive the Nobel Prize. He’s just not political enough!

Far too many lawyers and not enough scientists and engineers engaged in decision-making roles. We are bankrupt, a nation so divided and the hens are on a rampage determined to cast out in the next election, those responsible for doing what the people asked….Isn’t is intersting that Uncle Teddy and Uncle Johnny (Kerry) turned their cheek to the $16billion+ “Big Dig” to repair and rebuild seven miles of Boston’s inner roadways and people are in shock that to rebuild Haiti may cost $14billion –

Politics is surely local!

We have failed so blatently in education, economics, housing, and so on and so forth and the fertilizer being dropped at the local, to state, to national issues only see our great Republic in much peril and the world destined to much broader strife, War!

God Bless America!

Christopher Tingus
Harwich, MA 02645

Comment by Mark Chubb

March 25, 2010 @ 9:18 am

Chris, my definition of failure is pretty broad and socially constructed. I have chosen to adapt my definition of failure from the definitions of human error provided by Moray and Senders (1991) and Reason (1990).

Both sources agree that human error incorporates slips, lapses and mistakes, which are distinguished from one another by the nature of the interactions between individual intentions and actions. Errors can occur in the skill, rule, or knowledge domains, and may manifest themselves immediately (active errors) or at some time in the future (latent).

Errors, by their nature, are unforeseen events, usually accompanied by (and detected as a consequence of) their unwanted effects. Their unforeseeability is typically characterized from the perspective of the person responsible for the behavior from which they result, but this does not exclude the consequences from being equally unexpected by others. Insofar as this definition incorporations errors of intention not otherwise accompanied by errors of execution, it allows for the possibility that the consequences are more unforeseen and therefore less desirable from the perspective of others than the person responsible due to a failure to accurately reflect or accommodate their expectations.

I hope this executes my intention of clarifying my use of the term failure, and in doing so meets your expectations. ;-)


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