Unconventional Crisis: Impact on Decision Making

Boundary Condition #1 (3)

The previous post (2), presented the parameters defining an unconventional crisis as developed by Dr. Erwan Lagadec.  Here in the following table and discussion we  provide comparison of the characteristics that differentiate decision making, leadership and operational response in relation to both routine emergencies and conventional disasters and to unconventional /hyper complex catastrophic level events:

Summary of Contrasting Features of Routine and Crisis Emergencies

 (Modification from Leonard and Howitt, Against Desparate Peril: High Performance in Emergency Preparation and Response, John F. Kennedy School of Government. Harvard Business School, 2007.)

The last box under “defining competence” notes “recognition of novelty. Novelty is not only an endemic property of our environment, it is also a fundamental characteristic of social systems and activities. Unconventional crisis create uncertainty as do complex systems.  As uncertainty is central to unconventional crisis, andindeed seems pervasive in our time, it is imperative for organizations to create the ability to operate comfortably in this condition.  Novel input requires adaptability or creation of novelty in response. (Boyd 1992, Osinga 2007)

Discussion of novelty will be a recurring thread thoughout the various boundary condition discussions. For now consider the following:

  • The novelty of the situation implies that there is less than complete understanding of the circumstances—or even of which circumstances are relevant. Responders do not necessarily know which facts and observations are relevant and, therefore, which to collect.
  • Scripts developed for routine situations may be applicable, but, by definition, there is no comprehensive “playbook” from which the response can be directed;  The existence of significant novelty implies that significant customization or improvisation is likely to be needed. (Clarke, 1999)
  • Given the uncertainties born of novelty and the corresponding lack of available comprehensive routines, decisions cannot reliably be driven by pattern recognition (because, by definition, the patterns are not available).  Decision making must proceed through a standard analytical process: the identification of objectives, the development of alternatives, the prediction of likely results from different approaches, and the choice of a best action.
  • Because newly improvised approaches or previously untried combinations of existing routines may be implemented, execution is likely to be much less precise than in routine circumstances, which call for more tolerance of imperfections and errors in execution;
  • Since new actions may be taken, skills will not have been comprehensively developed for either the design or the execution of the required response. While training in the skills necessary to use existing routines as elements of the newly developed response will be useful, the need for the relevant skill base for components of what is being invented and improvised cannot reasonably have been foreseen and will not be available.  Adaptability will be THE key skill required for both operational and political actors (including departmental participants in EOCs, etc) – a learning requirement.
  • A leadership approach generally oriented to producing collaboration that works for directing the development of understanding and the design through invention and improvisation of a new approach—followed by a more authority-driven approach during the execution phase.

Concluding remarks

The level of personnel training, system performance and system-system interoperability acceptable for routine or conventional crisis events does not guarantee usefulness when the environment becomes hyper- complex and severely stochastic.  Nor does the 1) training and experience of key decision makers in the lower end of the spectrum, nor 2) “planned for in the playbook script” leadership insure that the magnitude and novelty of the emerging catastrophe does not overwhelm communities and emergency management, or simply negate “the plans” and won’t destabilize the entire response structure. 

Unconventional/Hyper-complex/Catastrophic level events are often noted as Low Probability, High Impact events.  But we should keep in mind that these events are actually Absolute-Certainty, Low-Predictability, High-Impact incidents that take place all the time. (Essmaeel, comments on PWH, 2009)

Hyper complexity makes it near impossible for “traditional” leaders to plan, let alone coordinate response efforts.  Extrapolation of training and system evaluation suitable for routine emergencies and conventional disasters as suitable for unconventional or catastrophic operational response is an intrinsically flawed strategy.



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