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.

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