9/27/2005

Tilting at Windmills - Crisis Management: Control vs. Facilitation - centralization is deadly

I agree. I posted something similar on kos -- law

Richard Veryard quotes Martin Geddes as follows:

In an emergency, a distributed piece of information calls for a central response. A disaster, the converse. Those best informed are in the field; those best equipped, in the field. The best disaster response system is the one in your hand when the disaster strikes.

That's good sense. Here's the deal - in an emergency you want central control because you don't want extraneous people getting in the way and possibly doing something stupid that makes it worse.

In a disaster there is too much going on - you can't take full central control because you can control thousands of simultaneous actions or meet thousands or hundreds of thousands of tiny crises. The human mind can't do it, and neither can any centralized decision making body.

In such a situation you do two things:

The first is you put into gear your plan and your controlled assets. Which is to say, if you have a plan you execute. In case of a hurricane the following people will set up camps; this group will transport food and water; this group will send busses to X locations to remove people; this group will watch the levees and shore them up; this group will do search and rescue after the hurricane and so on. This either has to be organized ahead of time, or you have to have working groups, led by trusted individuals, whom you release to do the job. Each of those individuals has to have people under them that they trust to do their job. These people do not, and cannot, have to ask for permission to do every single thing. If they do, because so many things need to be done; because so many decisions must be made; no centralized leader can make all the calls and give all the green lights in time. It's simply not possible.

Even if this was organized ahead of time, and you're operating according to a plan, a disaster is like a battle - the plan won't survive contact with the enemy. It serves as a starting point and the leaders on the ground must have permission, upfront, to deviate from the plan based on their own judgement. If they can't, they'll do stupid things which don't fit the circumstances they've discovered. If they need to ask permission, their response times will be delayed, perhaps catastrophically.

The second thing a central body does in a disaster is facilitate and enter as an information clearing house. A big map goes up on the wall and shows where camps are, where refugees are, where airfields are, where depots are and so on. Lists of contact numbers go up on the wall. Timelines go up on the wall and so do needs. And when someone calls in and says, "I've got two tons of food coming in a quick yelled conversation goes on over the sound of the ringing phones and the guy on the phone says, "take them to the camp at X location, they need it." If volunteers call in they find out if they're organized, and dispatch them either as a group to do something or as individuals to an organized group. And so on. When commanders on the ground call in with needs, they find someone to fulfill them. If necessary this can be as simple as a press conference.

"FEMA director Smith has declared that FEMA needs bottled water. Anyone capable of providing X amount of bottled water who is within a days travel of New Orleans is asked to call the following number."

There would be responses.

Likewise when the military calls in and says, "we have planes on the ground, prepped and ready to go to drop supplies and choppers ready to fly to save people" your main role is to say "here's where you're needed most."

When the shit hits the fan, the way you manage through it is to let your people run with it. People do rise to the occasion. They see what needs to be done and they get moving to do it. Your job is to help them do it, to remove roadblocks stopping them from doing it and to make sure, above all, that you don't become that roadblock.

All of this comes back to an issue of trust. You have to trust your people; both those who work for and those who volunteer to help. You have to be willing to give up control to get effectiveness. No one works harder, or smarter, than the person who's told, "that's a great idea, go for it!" But you have to let them go for it. You have to trust them. You know a few of them are going to blow it and do something bone-headedly stupid but you should also know that most of them won't, and that their thousands of efforts will be much, much greater than anything you could try and control centrally.

Help, or get out of the way.

Tilting at Windmills - Crisis Management:
Control vs. Facilitation

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