New Normal means managing not just negative but positive setbacks

Setback management: handling a sudden or unanticipated check on organizational or institutional behavior that would likely lead to a worse mess unless managed. This often means trying to treat 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 organizational stage.

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

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

Other positive setbacks serve as a test bed for developing better practices, whatever the stage the 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:

–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 mean the setbacks are a priori negative.

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

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

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