I recently returned from the Philippines where I received an award at my undergraduate alma mater’s alumni homecoming, delivered a faculty lecture about engaged learning, and presented a paper about smarter cities at an international conference on urban planning.
Little did I know that my brief visit to the Philippines would be eventful. Simultaneous with our arrival in the Philippines was the landfall of Super Typhoon Haiyan (referred to as Yolanda in the Philippines), which destroyed 494,611 houses, affected 9.8 million Filipinos (including 3 million displaced residents), and resulted in the loss of 3,637 lives thus far.[i] Haiyan/Yolanda cut a path that deviated from most Philippine typhoons and was unexpected by the 51 cities and 471 municipalities in 41 provinces[ii] that encountered its fury.
Thanks to international media, many images of this catastrophe have been transmitted to the homes of millions around the world, who watched the horrific destruction. It is not my intention to repeat here what has been reported. If you have not yet done so, I invite you to contribute to the relief efforts on the Woodbury University website http://communication.woodbury.edu/philippines-typhoon-victims/.
The world has dealt with natural disasters since the beginning of time. Whether it was the Great Flood that befell Noah and his contemporaries (Genesis 6-9), Hurricane Katrina, or Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, the generic nature of a catastrophe exhibits certain similarities. Although there is widespread agreement that natural disasters are beyond the control of human decision makers, there is also universal consensus that their impact can be managed. For example, Noah had a plan to build an ark and activated it to the ridicule of his own contemporaries. In his 1993 book on crisis management, Professor Ian I. Mitroff suggested that there are five distinct phases in managing a large-scale crisis: signal detection, preparation and prevention, damage containment, short- and long-term recovery, and examination of critical lessons learned.[iii] The current Haiyan/Yolanda operations are currently in the third phase—damage containment—with the United Nations Humanitarian Action Plan for the Philippines requesting $301 million to address humanitarian needs among the affected populations.
When large-scale disasters occur, there are at least two alternative human responses. The first is to look for causes in order to assign praise or blame. In catastrophic events of the magnitude of Haiyan/Yolanda, it is extremely difficult to determine a single cause, which leads to uncertainty, speculation, and the tendency to scapegoat. The second type of response is to focus on the future so that similar events can be prevented. In the case of the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda, there has been widespread clamor to focus on the positive relief efforts. These two human responses, however, should not be mutually exclusive, and both responses should be part of the public discourse. If we do not understand why events occurred as they did, then how can we learn from them? It is instructive at this point to quote Henry Petroski who wrote: “Yet no disaster need be repeated, for by talking and writing about the mistakes that escape us, we learn from them, and by learning from them we can obviate their recurrence.” (To Engineer is Human, 1985, p. 227).[iv]
In this case, the unexpected, calamitous “black swan” event was a typhoon. But what could a natural disaster possibly have to do with building excellence in organizations? One of my favorite questions in the Baldrige Award Criteria for Performance Excellence asks how the organization ensures that it is prepared for disasters or emergencies to address continuity of operations and recovery. Another favorite Baldrige Criteria question asks how the organization identifies potential blind spots in its strategic planning process and information. A blind spot is any gap in knowledge or strategic intelligence that leads to false assumptions and misguided strategic and operational plans. In the case of the Philippines, governments and businesses know typhoons are endemic to the region’s weather patterns. To an outsider, it is perplexing that the country’s disaster preparedness action plan was not implemented consistently. While the devastation has been about the same (i.e., near total) in the affected areas, the number of casualties differed and is related to the extent to which full evacuation of residents—a key component of the disaster plan— has taken place.
The same is true for most businesses, organizations or personal brands. There were those who predicted the “black swan” financial meltdown, but did not take dynamic action to prevent it. Businesses—large and small—encounter renegade CEOs, employees, supplier disruptions, and trade disputes. The fact is, we cannot predict the unpredictable, as our friends in the Philippines experienced. One of the biggest lessons we can learn from natural disasters is that they happen. This, alone, should compel us to action. Does your organization have a process for avoiding predictable blunders in strategy or any other aspect of its operations? Excellent organizations have the agility—a capacity for rapid change and flexibility in operations—to respond to such surprises in a timely manner. Ultimately, whether natural or of the corporate type, disasters affect people.
It would not be appropriate for me at this time to comment on the critical lessons learned from Super Typhoon Haiyan/Yolanda. With damage containment still ongoing and the recovery phase still in the conceptualization phase, we’re simply not there yet. You may rest assured that I am updating my notebook for a future blog on lessons learned.
What is your favorite example of a strategic plan that failed due to an avoidable blind spot?
I am Woodbury University President, Dr. Luis Calingo. Thank you for letting me share Reflections on Excellence.
[iii]Ian I. Mitroff and Christine M. Pearson, Crisis Management: A Diagnostic Approach to Improving Your Organization’s Crisis-Preparedness (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1993).
[iv]Henry Petroski, To Engineer is Human (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985).