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Issue Management: What the methodologies leave out

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Scientists call it the observer effect. It’s what happens when the act of observation affects what they’re observing. Werner Heisenberg used it to develop his uncertainty principle. It’s why medical researchers use double-blind treatment trials and placebo controls.

It also might explain an anomaly several of you called to my attention following the statistics I mentioned last week regarding the H1N1 virus.

Early reports indicated a 30% rate of contagion and a 1.25% mortality rate. The most recent U.S. statistics on the pandemic – one million confirmed cases and one thousand deaths – yield a mortality rate more than ten times lower.

Proof that the Alarm Industry has been at it again?

More likely, the observer effect is at work. In round numbers, every single healthcare professional in the United States has been thoroughly prepared to properly diagnose and treat the disease.

What’s missing: Clinicians do not report (and most likely can’t accurately determine) what the outcomes would have been without the preparation they received. Lacking this information we have no certain way to determine whether we should be cautiously celebrating success or angrily attacking the false-alarmers.

I’d say the odds favor it being the observer effect.

For several weeks we’ve explored the personal risk of successful prevention, and what to do about it. Leave it at this: Whatever you’re trying to prevent, whether it’s malware intrusions or unnecessary calls to the Service Desk, do everything possible to define metrics that can document success when it happens. Yes, it makes you the beneficiary of Metrics Fallacy #4 (see Chapter 3 of Keep the Joint Running: A Manifesto for 21st Century Information Technology). The alternative is worse: Being the victim of your own success.

But go back a few steps, to where you decided you had something important to prevent. Imagine that instead of prevent you chose one of the other four possible responses to a risk: Mitigate (reduce the impact through an approved contingency plan); insure (share the hurt with others); accept (either hope, or decide the risk is so remote or minor that any advance effort is a fifty buck solution to a five buck problem); or oops (miss the risk entirely and be caught by surprise).

It doesn’t matter which. In project-management parlance your risk has become an issue. In plain English you have a problem.

Now what?

First and foremost, you and your team have to deal with the problem, quickly, thoroughly, and professionally. It’s a matter of self-respect.

Then you have to choose one of the four responses to realized risk that no methodology will mention – the political responses: Conceal, minimize, blame-shift, and report. Here’s how they break down:

  • Conceal: Yes, conceal. Ever hear the phrase “We give employees information on a need-to-know basis”? With a bad reporting relationship, or in highly political organizations that have a blame-oriented culture, carefully filtering the information that ascends the organizational hierarchy is a critical survival skill. If you and your team can deal with the problem without it gaining much visibility, your manager might not need to even know it took place.
  • Otherwise, make sure your manager hears about the problem from you first so you can control the message. Which leads to your other options:

  • Minimize: A variant of conceal, you minimize a problem by making sure your manager knows it occurred, but not that it was worth his or her personal attention. The operative phrase: No Big Deal (NBD). Minimize when your manager might hear about the problem from someone else and draw the wrong (or, worse, the right) conclusion.
  • Blame-shift: Here’s a great example of choosing the least of the available evils. You know you work for a company that considers Holding People Accountable to be the alpha and omega of management science. As “The dark side of accountability,” (Keep the Joint Running, 11/3/2003) explains, it really means the company will select a scapegoat. There’s no particular virtue in allowing it to be you.
  • The preferred technique for blame-shifting is to let your manager know what happened, make it clear you and your team have it under control, and, under the guise of root-cause-analysis, clearly finger the person or team whose oversight allowed the problem to occur.

  • Report: Imagine you have a positive working relationship with your manager, who cares more about planning, respecting plans, and getting things done than about blamestorming. That’s when you report, accurately, what happened, how it happened, what you’re doing about it, and what should change so the problem doesn’t recur.

Everything is easier with good leadership, isn’t it? It makes you wonder why there’s so much of the other kind.

Comments (8)

  • Bob, I may be wrong on this, but I believe I saw similar stats on on H1N1, but the mortality rate was a percentage of those admitted to ICUs, not a percentage of all infections. Obviously that would make a big difference.

  • Good leadership rewards success, great leadership rewards recovery from failure.

    I frequently hear people talk about how hard change is going to be, but they ignore the fact that significant change involves some failures along the way.

    When failures occur, it’s as if every head in the organization turns to look at the response of upper management. All too frequently, the response is anger, or worse, silence. Everyone expects anger, but silence allows the rumor mill to grind out more fear at what’s coming.

    Of course, upper management generally provides the necessary support to those responsible for the repair. However, when a recovery is made, there’s little or no acknowledgement of the failure or the recovery.

    If you “embrace change”, you must also embrace mistakes, blind alleys, frustration and failure. If people can be secure in their misfeasance (non-feasance and malfeasance are other matters entirely), the corporate culture can advance.

    Otherwise, there’s no chance of growth, and if you’re not growing, you’re dying.

    • Because I can’t resist embellishing:

      – Good leadership rewards success.
      – Better leadership rewards recovery from failure.
      – Great leadership rewards prevention.

  • You left one thing out of blame-shifting. Make the problem seem even bigger to scuttle the person(s) being blamed.

  • This seems to fit one of my observations about people. Whenever people get involved things get screwed up. Bob’s article explains why.

  • The swine flu was way overblown a generation ago. Americans were distracted by Islamic extremists, so disenchanted with a disgraced Republican that they leapt for a Democrat with no foreign policy experience and a great deal of perceived idealism. The economy was the worst since the great depression with fears of high fuel costs and environmental problems. The swine flu was actually a non-issue, affecting almost no one in this country.

    With the other similarities between the Carter years and today, is it any wonder that H1N1 is now met with skepticism? People match patterns, even if they are not statistically significant.

  • Bob,

    Interesting topic….and I have been having some “ah ha” moments lately that this fits into. As a long time state employee, one of my great frustrations is the implication that government is always less efficient/effective than the private sector. (The health care debate has really brought this to the forefront.) These critics then rattle off a bunch of examples of how we have made errors and projects that have failed. My realization is that these same things happen in the private sector, but no one knows about them. There is no public accountability so how do we even know that the public sector is less efficient/effective than the private sector? When a private sector project fails, the shareholders probably don’t even know.

    In addition, some of the real lack of public sector efficiencies are because of the extreme oversight and equity requirements with which we must comply. Contracting is VERY difficult because of the extensive fair contracting requirements, hiring is very difficult because of employee bargaining unit issues, and purchasing is complex.

    But I will also say that I actually don’t have a problem with any of this oversight, as we are using the “people’s” money and we need to be accountable. My issue is that when you compare the public sector to the private sector, it’s critical that you actually have all the information about the private sector. What projects have they killed, how many were late, overbudget, over/under scope, etc. versus successful projects?

    OK, I’ve now spent enough time on a this, adding to the notion that government employees don’t do any real work!!

    Wendy Nelson, CIO
    Minnesota Department of Health

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