Okay, I will admit it: one of the guilty pleasures in my household is a show called Doomsday Preppers.
To begin, I have always been interested in preparedness, and modern disasters like Katrina and Sandy have only helped to reinforce that interest.
Both storms exposed a concern that was previously disregarded as a paranoiac fantasy: that it is possible to live in the wealthiest country on earth and be stranded without access to power, food, water, and medical care for a period of time long enough to threaten your well being.
Most emergency preparedness is based on a singular concept: being able to maintain life, health, security and (hopefully) comfort during a temporary period of disruption. The key word here is “temporary.” Emergency preparedness assumes a restoration of basic services and a return to the modern life we, at least in the Western world, know.
Doomsday preppers shun the temporary part. They believe in the end of the modern world and economy — a complete breakdown of social order and services similar to something seen in the The Road or The Book of Eli.
The reasons behind these beliefs, the cataclysmic events for which the preppers are preparing, are also what differentiate doomsday preppers from others. And it is in this differentiation that there is a management lesson to be found.
Probabilities And Focus in Organizations
Sure, a solar flare could take down the national power grid. I guess the Greenland ice sheet could melt so fast that Miami is under water in 5 years not 500… But probabilistically speaking, it’s worse than lottery odds.
The catch with most doomsday preppers is they have dedicated the primary, if not entire, focus of their existence to highly improbable events. This is like basing your financial planning on winning the Powerball. Sure, if you win, you’ll be ready — but good luck with that.
Organizations tend to do this on a less severe level. Remember, the situation that caused huge problems for the company and resulted in hours of staff time. Now, we have reissued our policies manual (20 hours of staff time), have changed our procedures for each phone agent (an extra 150 hours of staff time each week accumulated over 1,000 agents), and the cost of preventing the problem from recurring again is 50 times the cost of the actual problem that occurred.
More importantly, that problem has only occurred twice in the last decade.
In our free eBook (now retired), 7 Secret Customer Service Techniques Every Expert Knows, we discussed the concept of Rule Accretion in Secret Technique #4: They Prepare for What Will Go Wrong.
Rule Accretion: Rule accretion occurs when a rule is devised to fix problems in an organization — no matter the qualitative impact or relative frequency of the problems. The problem with Rule Accretion is that the policies that result usually shackle employees so much that they often create more problems than the obscure circumstances they are designed to prevent. This is not to say that creating policies for an unlikely circumstance is never called for. If the issue is one of liability or safety, than the policy might be called for even if the circumstances are rare. It is a question then of balancing risk and reward. However, the tendency to overreact and create a rule for every problem should be guarded against; otherwise, you end up with bloated policies that become organizational shackles.
Modern medicine has advanced to a point where the cure is rarely worse than the disease; unfortunately, modern business has not. Too often, the overreaction to prevent these rare issues from recurring far exceed the ramifications of the issue itself.
Rare events happen (read up on black swans for another view of this), and it is these rare events that cause everyone in the organization to wring their hands, shoot off rounds of emails, and hold meetings to figure out how they can make sure this never happens again. Mix in organizational politics and finger-pointing, and it’s easier to make new policies than for someone to stand up and say “preventing this from happening again is worse than it happening again.”
When bad things happen to good organizations, it is easy to feel like doomsday has come. If you can, however, try to look at the situation and the desperate gyrations of your organization to prevent a recurrence from the standpoint of resources and profitability.
It is not an easy thing to do, but sometimes you just have to accept that your time, and your organization’s time, is better spent on other things than prevention.
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