The New Normal is managing not just negative setbacks but positive ones as well

Setback management: handling a sudden or unanticipated check on organizational or institutional behavior that would likely lead to a worse mess unless managed. This means trying to pull the good mess out of one that could go bad by treating the setback as: a design probe, a test-bed for something better, an interruption from which the organization learns, or an obstacle to overcome so that the organization moves to a new stage of its life cycle.

–Setbacks—unanticipated, unwanted, and often sudden interruptions and checks on moving forward—are typically treated as negative and fairly common in complex policymaking, implementation, and operations.

Less discussed are positive setbacks. Best known is when a complex organization transitions from one stage of a life cycle to another by overcoming the obstacles characteristic of the stage in which the organization finds itself. Moving from implementation to management and operations is one such transition.

Other positive setbacks serve as a test bed for developing better practices, whatever the stage the complex organization finds itself. Some setbacks are better thought of as design probes for whether that organization is on the “right track,” or if not, what track it could/should be on. In yet other circumstances, setbacks serve to point managers in the direction of things about which they had been unaware but which still matter.

To summarize, setbacks are positive in terms of their degree of importance and of the time horizon over which they are important:

–Not only can setbacks be positive in different ways, but to characterize them as positive means an organization or its managers are able to establish, in part, the expectations with respect to the setback events.

This means that changing expectations is key to managing setbacks. If you change present expectations about setbacks, you change the future of setbacks and their consequences. Easier said than done, however.

–There is more. While organizational or institutional setbacks unsettle what had been settled knowledge, what renders them positive is when they do so in ways that expectations do not undermine the assumption of organizational continuity.

By way of example, did the 2008 financial crisis served as a timely interruption to remind us how central regulators are to the continuity of the financial and credit systems? Did the crisis end up as a much-needed probe of how well the financial and credit institutions are keeping their sectors on track and under mandate? Was the 2008 crisis a test bed for more resilient or anticipatory strategies in credit lending and investing? Did the crisis in effect served as an obstacle, whose surmounting has been necessary to promote the operational redesign of the financial and credit sectors in more reliable ways?

Note the obviously mixed answers to any such questions do not necessarily reflect negative setbacks.

–With that as background, I now suggest that what is often called “the new normal” is much better described as a setback management that embraces the positive setbacks just mentioned.

If so, it seems to me three other “Normals” stand in the way of accepting a “new normal” as the management of setbacks, negative and positive:

• There is Normal Accidents Theory, which insists major accidents and system failures are an inevitable part of the tight coupling and complex interactivity of critical infrastructures. This however assumes setbacks cannot be managed, setbacks function primarily as precursors to disasters, and that operational redesigns cannot compensate for the effects of toxic design and technology.

• There is what the development scholar, Robert Chambers, calls “Normal Professionalism,” which points to a constellation of blind-spots to inter-unit cooperation. Blind-spots, however, are not just a source of weakness, but also of strength that comes with recognizing systemwide patterns and formulating localized contingency scenarios.

• There is also what sociologist, Diane Vaughan, identified as “Normalization of Deviance” in critical infrastructures. This social psychological phenomenon occurs, for our purposes, when anomalies that deviate from high reliability performance expectations are not interpreted as warning signs but become acceptable, routine and taken-for-granted aspects of performance for decisionmakering.

But Setbacks Are Normal; they are going on all the time in critical service provision and have to be operationally worked around and upon. Setbacks are ways we manage to take the world seriously when it comes to critical services that we cannot lose in real time.

Principal source: Part of this is an updated and revised section from my (2009), “Preventing Transboundary Crises: The Management and Regulation of Setbacks.” Review of Policy Research 26(4): 457-471.

Global Climate Sprawl

–In her This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Naomi Klein writes about the “painful reality behind the environmental movement’s catastrophic failure to effectively battle the economic interests behind our soaring [greenhouse] emissions”. She is not alone. Professor David Campbell writes: “The trillions which the developed countries have spent and plan to spend on mitigation have been and will be wasted. . .The failure of the collective brain of environmentalism to look this in the face will erode the goodwill which is its principal resource when its role in causing the immense waste becomes indisputable.”

To argue that the environmental movement—environmentalism writ large—has failed is a significant proposition, even if true only as far as it goes. After all, it was the environmental movement that helped articulate the crisis narratives for GCC. To label this, “failure,” is to argue that climate change is occurring because the recommendations of the environmental movement have not been implemented.

This “conclusion” has same ring of certainty that environmental movement recommendations have had. “The climate for the next several decades is set in concrete. . . .[T]here is nothing now to prevent those disastrous events,” an expert already told us a decade ago. Such certainty takes its force from being both determinism–“set in concrete”—and fatalism—disaster is unavoidable—at the same time.

–Surprise, in other words, has been exiled to another planet. This is not new. Go back to the 1990s to see “no surprise clauses” in habitat conservation plans. Here binding restrictions were sought that would leave the landowner or developer immune from further restrictions, should a threatened or endangered species be unexpectedly found on the property. But the unexpected is to be expected, notwithstanding no-surprise clauses. Why? Because to behave as if surprise can be eliminated is itself behavior that produces surprise.

–On the more positive side, then, to take such surprise seriously means, at a minimum, acknowledging and protecting those in and around the ecosystems of concern who, in managing already-existing surprises, also manage to improve ecosystem services and functions in the face of GCC.  That such efforts necessarily occur along case-by-case trajectories of fits and starts, some abandoned, others sustained for longer, is also to be acknowledged and understood.

–Which takes us back to that colossal waste of time and effort that Klein and like believers see in the efforts with respect to combatting GCC.

“Waste” is ambiguous, though. It’s just not that we often differ over what is “waste.” We can actually agree that the waste associated with GCC has been colossal, but differ over what its epic proportions entail.

By way of illustrating, I want to suggest GCC isn’t just a bad mess; it’s a spectacularly, can’t-keep-our-eyes-off-it, awful bad mess, and with implications not fully recognized.

–Let’s agree: GCC and its drivers are remaking a first-class Nature into world-class garbage truck. But why stop there in our description? Consider what many others have to say about the stunningly profligate human nature involved. You see the sheer excess of it all in Philip Roth’s rant about human nature from American Pastoral:

You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet. . .It’s getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That’s how we know we’re alive: we’re wrong.

This mind-boggling rush and excess of getting it wrong again and again and again has been neatly captured by others as well. The elder statesman in T.S. Eliot’s eponymous play admits,

The many many mistakes I have made
My whole life through, mistake upon mistake,
The mistaken attempts to correct mistakes
By methods which proved to be equally mistaken.

The missing comma between “many many”—no surprise, right?—says it all, in my view: At the limits of cognition, we cannot pause, with words and thoughts sprawling over each other and piling up against a puzzled unknowability. (That the wildly different Philip Roth and T.S. Eliot are together on this point indicates the very real mess this is.)

That word, sprawl, is like that word, waste: full of yeasty ambiguity. Here is Les Murray’s more magnanimous view from his “The Quality of Sprawl”:

Sprawl is the quality
of the man who cut down his Rolls-Royce
into a farm utility truck, and sprawl
is what the company lacked when it made repeated efforts
to buy the vehicle back and repair its image.
Sprawl is doing your farming by aeroplane, roughly,
or driving a hitchhiker that extra hundred miles home…

This extravagance and profligacy are not ornery contrarianism solely. “[W]aste is another name for generosity of not always being intent on our own advantage,” poet Robert Frost wrote.

To my mind, Global Climate Change is the hot mess—both senses of the term—now sprawled all over place and across time. GCC is inextricably, remorselessly part and parcel of “living way too expansively, generously.” If I had my druthers, I’d rename it, “GCS:” Global Climate Sprawl.

Table of key entries by topic area

Most Important: “What am I missing?,” “Complexity is the enemy of the intractable,” “Power,” “Interconnected?,” “I believe,” “Wicked problems,” “Even if what you say is true as far as it goes, it doesn’t go far enough…,” “Time as sinuous, space as interstitial: the example of total control,” “Keeping it complex. . .,” ““Long-terms, short-terms, and short-termism,” “More on over-complexification,” “Playing it safe, utopia,” “Case-by-case analysis: realism, criteria, virtues,” “Not ‘Why don’t they listen to us?’ but rather: ‘What should we listen for from them. . .’”

Recasting big policy issues: “Poverty and war,” “Second thoughts on income inequality,” “Surprising climate change,” “COVID-19,” “Missing racism,” “Healthcare,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene, ” “The market failure economists don’t talk about: Recasting infrastructures and the economy,” “Culling sustainability,” “In a failed state,” “Revolts,” “A colossal inheritance,” “Wicked problems,” “Making the best of linear thinking, complexly: typologies for reframing ‘coordination’,” “Government regulation,” and Longer Reads (below)

More recastings: “Policy narratives,” “America’s and Trump’s,” “Recastings #1,” “When the light at the end of the tunnel is the tunnel,” “Loose ends, #3,” “Public Policy Analysis, c.1970 – c.2020: In Memoriam?,” “Sound familiar? Here’s why,” “A grammar of policy analysis,” “Bluejays, fists and W.R. Bion,” “Policy as magical thinking,” “A different take on ‘traditional agriculture:’ risk-averse v. reliability-seeking,” “Finding the good mess in supply and demand,” “Escaping from Hell Is a Right!,” “Global Climate Sprawl”

Not-knowing and its proxies: “Seeing unknowns,” “Inexperience and central banks,” “Managing inexperience,” “Difficulty at risk and unequal,” “By way of distraction…,” “Shakespeare’s missing lines still matter”

Ignorance and uncertainty: “When ignorance does more than you think,” “Optimal ignorance,” “Uncertain superlatives,” “Stopping rules and contested regulation,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene,” “Why aren’t they all running away!,” “Yes, ‘risk and uncertainty’ are socially constructed and historicized. Now what? The missing corollary and 3 examples,” “Killing cognitive reversals,” “Error and Safety”

Risk, resilience and root causes: “A new standard for societal risk acceptance,” “Easily-missed points on risks with respect to failure scenarios and their major implications,” “Risk criteria with respect to asset versus system scenarios,” “Half-way risk,” “Central role of the track record in risk analysis,” “Resilience isn’t what you think,” “Root causes,” “Frau Hitler, again,” “With respect to what?,” “Yes, ‘risk and uncertainty’ are socially constructed and historicized. Now what? The missing corollary and 3 examples,” “Error and Safety”

Regulation: “A few things I’ve learned from the Financial Times on regulation,” “Government regulation,” “Stopping rules and contested regulation”

Infrastructures: “The real U.S. infrastructure crisis,” “Innovation,” “Take-home messages,” “Who pays?,” “When high reliability is not a trade-off,” “The market failure economists don’t talk about: Recasting infrastructures and the economy,” “When ignorance does more than you think,” “Catastrophizing cascades,” “Healthcare,” “Interconnected,” “Stopping rules and contested regulation,” “Achilles’ heel of high reliability management,” “Where distrust and dread are positive social values,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene,” “Government regulation,” “Killing cognitive reversals,” “Error and Safety”

Environment: “New environmental narratives for their End Times (longer read, consolidated from following entries),” “Nature,” “Tansley’s ecosystem,” “Radical uncertainty and new environmental narratives,” “Eco-labelling recasted,” “European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, Scenes I and II,” “To-do’s in the Anthropocene,” “Dining on gin and consommé,” “Culling sustainability,” “Lifecycle modeling of species,” “Better fastthinking in complex times”

Catastrophe and crisis: “Catastrophizing cascades,” “Jorie Graham’s systemcide,” “The shame of it all,” “Next-ism,” “The future is the mess we’re in now,” “Killing cognitive reversals,” “Escaping from Hell Is a Right!”

More mess, good and bad: “A different take on the traffic mess,” “Happiness: The mess,” “Who pays?,” “Misadventures by design,” “. . .and raise my taxes!,” “Loose ends, #2,” “Top-of-the-list thinking,” “Take-home messages,” “Finding the good mess in supply and demand,” “The New Normal is managing not just negative setbacks but also positive ones”

Betterment and good-enough: “Betterment as ‘yes-but’ through ‘yes-and’,” “It’s better between the James brothers,” “Good-enoughs,” “Good-enough dreamers,” “Professional, amateur, apprentice; Or, As good as the fingernails of Manet,” “‘at sea,’ ‘from on high’,” “Betterment (continued),” “Better fastthinking in complex times”

Policy palimpsests and composite arguments: “Take home messages,” “Blur, Gerhard Richter, and failed states,” “Time as sinuous, space as interstitial: the example of total control,” “More on policy palimpsests: The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme, Scenes I and II,” “Shakespeare’s missing lines still matter,” “Bluejays, fists and W.R. Bion,” “Reflection and sensibility,” and other Longer Reads (below)

Economism: “Economism,” “Keep it simple?,” “Loose ends, #1” “When high reliability is not a trade-off,” “Short and not sweet,” “The missing drop of realism,” “The market failure economists don’t talk about: Recasting infrastructures and the economy,” “Finding the good mess in supply and demand,” “Makes the gorge rise”

Longer Reads: “Ammons and regulation,” “The next Constitutional Convention,” “Recalibrating Politics: the Kennedy White House dinner for André Malraux,” “Blur, Gerhard Richter, and failed states,” “A consultant’s diary,” “A different take on The Great Confinement,” “Market contagion, financial crises and a Girardian economics,” “New environmental narratives for their End Times (consolidated from Environment entries),” “New benchmark metrics for major risk and uncertainty (consolidated from entries for Risk, resilience and root causes)”

Something less complex?: “Red in tooth and claw,” “What kdrama has taught me,” “The irony of it all,” “Dining on gin and consommé,” “Five questions everyone should want to answer”

Error and Safety

–A key virtue of operating within the shared comfort zone of team situation awareness in the infrastructure control room is knowing when it is an error to comply with a regulated task or technical protocol that, in the case at hand, would work against system reliability and safety. Correcting for errors is a key function of high reliability management in real time.

When operators are, however, pushed out of their comfort zone into unstudied conditions (say, by defective technology, policies or regulations), they find themselves unable to perform reliably there. Operators then perform under conditions where the identification of what is or not “error” defaults, ironically, to whether or not compliance mandated by the regulator of record takes place. “Sticking to procedure” ends in where there is no procedure and then “operator error,” which sets into play a perverse cycle.

Ritualized calls arise for foolproof technology, systemwide redesign, policies or regulations to correct for the mistakes. The effort becomes one of trying to macro-design micro-errors away, as if there were no middle domain of reliability professionals in real time. Macro-micro leaps of faith are lethal to systemwide reliability, we have repeatedly seen; they are, however, a permanent feature of calls for more regulation and policy.

–One upshot of the perverse cycle is that it’s a mistake to think all errors are mistakes. What needs to be distinguished is whether the errors/mistakes occur within or outside the control operators’ comfort zone. Tracking and responding to the differences are invaluable.

Why? Because many complex infrastructures we study treat uncertainty with respect to different types of errors as useful information. As Paul Schulman puts it, uncertainty isn’t the lack of information; it is itself a kind of information about where the socio-technical systems is in real time as a system:

In nuclear power plants, commercial aviation (including air traffic control systems), as well as other critical infrastructures, a distinctive form of error management has been a framework for high reliability. For these organizations the inverse of knowledge is not ignorance or uncertainty – it’s error. They identify and categorize uncertainty in relation to specific errors in decisions and actions they seek to avoid in order to preclude outcomes that are surrounded by not only organizational but societal dread.

–Yet for all these nuances, “error” continues to be treated as Bad in much of the literature on Safety Culture.

An analogy helps. The Roman Catholic Church had the early problem of how to treat Islam. It couldn’t be paganism, because Islam also held there to be One God and indeed shared notables, like Jesus and Noah. To make things fit, the Holy See declared Islam was not paganism but a Christian heresy, along the lines of Arianism or Socinianism, which questioned the Trinity or Jesus’ divinity.

So too today for that one great religion, Safety, with its one great heresy, “Operator Error.” Yea, though we all be fallible, operator error is bad, bad, bad. Even when operators don’t see it so; even when operators correct for forced errors all the time; even when they manage for error in their comfort zone. In other words, when really-existing error is not defined by dogma, matters become more usefully complex. People make mistakes and, yes, you can’t unring the bell once rung, but it’s always been more complex than that.

Principal source.

P.R. Schulman (undated). “Reliability, uncertainty and the management of error: New perspectives in the Covid-19 Era.” Unpublished manuscript.

Escaping from Hell Is a Right!

(You need at least 30 minutes for this entry.)

Set to music by Frederic Rzewski (pron. JEV-skee), the first part of his Coming Together is based on text from a letter of Sam Melville, anti-war protester and convicted bomber, who was incarcerated at Attica. He was shot and killed in the 1971 Attica prison uprising.

(You may have to pull the play bar back fully to the left; no proprietary claim is made to this link or material)

Part Two, ‘Attica,’ uses the reply of another uprising leader, Richard X. Clark, just after being release. Asked how it felt leaving Attica behind, he said: “Attica is in front of me.” Rzewski draws for me hope to and from those words.

Principal source

Grégory Salle (2018). “Escaping from Hell Is a Right!”: The Case of France’s ‘Q.H.S.’ (1975–1982).” Chapter 7 In: Prison Breaks–Toward a Sociology of Escape (eds. T.M. Martin and G. Chantraine), Springer eBook (

Makes the gorge rise

Writes the economist, Paul Collier:

Overwhelmingly, the answer to why poor societies are poor is that they lack the organizations of modern capitalism. Capitalism has created organizations that harness the productivity potential of scale and specialization without triggering the alienation predicted by Marx. Marx thought that large-scale production inevitably separated enjoyment from labour, and that specialization “chained [man] down to a little fragment of the whole”. Ironically, the consequences of alienation were most devastatingly revealed by industrial socialism. Modern firms maintain motivation by a judicious combination of incentives and a sense of purpose: workers internalize the objectives of the firm. From the entrepreneur to the car park attendant, people get job satisfaction from what they do, not just from what they earn. Being subject to the discipline of the market, firms that fail to create such work environments go bankrupt.

Oh, and then he adds, “The Achilles heel of modern capitalism is the financial sector.”

Finding the good mess in supply and demand

–I admit to a fantasy about supply and demand curves, provoked by all those graphics like the one culled below from Wikipedia:

My fantasy is this: Imagine both demand and supply shifting downwards, with equilibrium price P* and quantity Q* shifting down with them. At some point, the two curves intersect the horizontal axis, producing three quantities, Qs < Q* < Qd.

Now, if you take a second look at the graphic, Qs is the quantity supplied even when price is zero. The equilibrium price, P*, becomes the price needed to move the quantity supplied from Qs to Q*. In this way, a portion of the quantity demanded is provided at no price because of, say, intrinsic motivation, or suppliers are confused, or everyone was just lucky. I’d like to think that is the good mess somewhere in every equilibrium analysis.

Principal source.

Frey, B.S. (1997). Not Just for the Money: An Economic Theory of Personal Motivation. Edward Elgar Publishing: Cheltenham, UK.

Better fastthinking in complex times

–The ability to think fast on one’s feet has always been at a premium. Indeed, fastthinking has been the order of the day for those policy types who operate under the ying and yang of crisis management and leaving important decisions to the last minute.

Clearly, fastthinking is not conventional trial and error learning, as the conditions for such learning––low environmental uncertainty, stability in goals and objectives, and persisting institutional memory––are missing from much of the relevant policy world. Nor is it the message-in-the-bottle (Flaschenpost) approach, where you do your research, throw it upon the still waters of hard drives, and hope that someone, somewhere, sometime, retrieves it and treat your message seriously.

fastthinking is just-in-time-thinking to match just-in-time schedules in just-interrupted task environments. That’s the upside. The downside is that timely feedback, prompt response and rapid adaptation are purchased by discouraging (more) deliberation and reflection. The common remedy recommended: Slow fastthinking down. Be deliberative. Think things through. But that’s the problem: We have less time to slow things down, and even less time to make the decisions.

–What to do then? Focus here on one principal effect of a fastthinking likely to stay around indefinitely: namely, the greater the pressure to take decisions now, the greater will be the pressure to rely on existing policy narratives. Where so, it seems obvious to me that the better policy narratives we rely upon have to become more complex.

In my view, a better policy narrative meets three criteria:

  • The narrative—its story with beginning, middle and end, or argument with premises and conclusions—is one that takes seriously that the policy or management issue is complex, uncertain, interrupted and/or conflicted.
  • The narrative is one that also moves beyond critique of limitations and defects of the reigning policy narrative (criticisms on their own increase uncertainties when they offer no better storyline to follow).
  • The narrative tells a better story than the reigning narrative(s). It gives an account that, while not dismissing or denying the issue’s difficulty, is more amenable or tractable to analysis, policymaking and management. Indeed, the issue’s complexity offers up opportunities to recast a problem differently and with it, potential management options.

–With that in mind, let me jump to the quick with two examples of what I mean by more complex policy narratives tailored to fastthinking, in this case in the environmental arena:

1. All major ecosystems are complex, and none more so than the planet as an entire ecosystem. Ecosystems are being managed so poorly, but there are ways to take action now in advance of results of long-term research, study and experimentation. Much more needs to be done to bring ecologists (including conservation biologists, climatologists, and hydrologists, among other natural scientists) into direct operations of large-scale systems. There, ecologists would not only be better positioned to undertake or promote long-term and large-scale studies and interventions, but more important provide real-time (a.k.a. fastthinking) advice for real-time problems affecting critical services, including but not limited to water and energy, based in ecosystem processes and services.

2. Think of advanced ecological management as utilizing authoritative websites, one of which might be, maintained by, say, the Ecological Society of America [or other organization/country of interest].

An authoritative website provides sought-after, up-to-date and linked knowledge so quickly and reliably that it is continuously browsed by increasing numbers of users who click on the website early and often in their search for on-point information, in this case about ecology-based management. These websites do not pretend to provide final or definitive information, but rather seek to assure and ensure the quality of the topical information continually up-dated.

The website serves as a clearinghouse that encourages cross-checking and tailoring of information on ecological management, while also acting as a springboard for future information search and exchange. It is popular because it shortens the number of steps it takes to move from place to place in search of salient information.

In this scenario, the analyst or manager starts her analysis on ecology-based management by searching She goes to the website on the well-established principle that information becomes increasingly policy or management relevant when the people gathering the information are the ones who actually end up using that information. That is, the authoritative website is constructed and maintained to make searching and browsing easier for the policymaker herself.

Do such websites already exist for ecological and environmental managers (let alone for other major policy and management issues)? When it comes right down to it, do we find many real-time ecologists in infrastructure control rooms across the world?

Not “Why don’t they listen to us?” but rather: “What should we listen for from them. . .”

We want policymakers and politicians to treat our research and analysis seriously, but we rarely turn the cart around and ask: What more should we be listening for from them beyond the substance of what they are saying? It’s not just what they say but how they say it.

How would we identify those who talk as if they’d listen to what we have to say? How do we identify policy types where no amount of our research and analysis would ever be sought? In short, what are we missing that’s right in front of us as they articulate what they’re saying?

For me, two sets of positive statements stand out indicating the kind of receptivity to research and analysis we would like to hear from policy types:

“with respect to,” “under what conditions,” “this is a case of”. For example, it’s risks and uncertainties with respect to these failure scenarios and not those that we should be worried about. It’s under those conditions and not these that we take action. What we are talking about is something different, its being a case of . . .

“Here’s our track record…,” “Here are our measures of success…or failure”. Did what actually happened match what was originally proposed? Or, how does what actually happened compare to the success record of others in like situations? Or, what would have happened even had not the policy been implemented?

These statements (and variants) reduce to versions of “yes, but” or “yes, and,” and in so doing indicate the willingness and the ability of the speakers to identify differences that matter for policy and management.

What, though, about the negative statements to be listened for? Am I the only one who trembles when some senior government officials says of a particularly tricky state of affairs, “We need to clear the table and make a fresh start“? Dangerous dumbing down is occurring when you hear this and the like from policy types:

–“It’s a win-win, so who can be against it?” (when everyone within hearing distance knows winners rarely if ever compensate losers), “We just need the political will” (when obviously we’ve had too much political will in committing to any and everything), “If implemented as planned” (when the entire point is you cannot assume any such thing); and

–“It’ll pay for itself” (when costs, let alone benefits, can’t be measured, aren’t evenly distributed nor even collectively borne), “We must do this at all costs” (when what the policy types are really doing is refusing to tell you the likely ones), and “Failure is not an option” (when failure is always a very real possibility in complex situations).

And yes, we did better in the Marshall Plan, the Moon Landing, or other Standalone. But there are no guarantees that “just because” we did that once, we’re able to do it for an entirely different type of problem, like eliminating racial discrimination or income inequality. Instead, what we want to hear from policy types is, “Here’s what to do even now. . .

It’s no one else’s responsibility but ours to sharpen our skills in listening-out-for when it comes to policy talk. The duty is to listen out for those willing and able to dial in details for the very different answers to: What do we know? What should we do? What can we hope?

(Special thanks to Paul Schulman in thinking through and wording some points.)

Killing cognitive reversals

What else can we do, the senior executives and company boards tell themselves, when our entire business is on the line? We have to risk failure in order to succeed.

But what if that business is in a critical service sector? Here, when upper management seeks to implement these risk-taking changes, they rely on middle-level reliability professionals, who, when they take risks, only do so in order to reduce the chances of failure. To reliability-seeking professionals, the risk-taking activities of upper management look like a form of suicide for fear of death.

–When professionals are compelled to reverse practices they know and found to be reliable, the results are deadly. In the Challenger accident, engineers had been required up to the day of that flight to show why the shuttle could launch; on that day, the decision rule was reversed to one showing, “beyond a shadow of a doubt,” why launch couldn’t take place.

Once it had been good bank practice to hold capital as a cushion against unexpected losses; new capital security arrangements mandated that they hold capital against losses that must be expected from their high-risk lending. Also contributing to the 2008 financial meltdown was that mortgage brokers traditionally made money on the performance and quality of mortgages they made; then their compensation changed to one based on the volume of loans originated but passed on.

The Deepwater Horizon rig had been drilling an exploration well at the Macondo site; that status changed when on April 15 2010 BP applied to the U.S. Minerals Management Service (MMS) to convert the site to a production well, a change approved by the MMS. The explosion occurred five days later.

–In short, there is ample evidence that reversals of important decision rules that require professionals in high-stakes situations to turn inside out the way they had managed for reliability have led to system failures and more: NASA was never the same; we are still trying to get out of the the 2008 financial mess and the Great Recession that followed; the MMS disappeared from the face of the earth.

Forcing cognitive reversals on the part of reliability operators and operators—that is, exile them to conditions they do not know but are told they must nonetheless be skilled for—is the surest way to throw acid into face of high reliability management.

–“But,” you counter, “that’s a strawman. Of course, we wouldn’t deliberately push reliability professionals into unstudied conditions, if we could avoid it.”


The often-heard and oft-recommended approach, Be-Prepared-for-All-Hazards, looks like the counsel of wisdom. It however is dangerous if it requires emergency and related organizations to cooperate in ways they currently cannot, using information they will not have or cannot obtain, for all manner of interconnected scenarios, which if treated with equal seriousness, produce considerable, if not massive modeling and analytic uncertainties.

An all-hazards approach, if actually implemented, pushes professionals mandated to be reliable into having “to operate a critical infrastructure in prolonged unstudied conditions,” a management contradiction if ever there was one.