A time for overwhelming action

By now, you will probably have picked up that I enjoy a good old risk assessment. However, there are times when you don’t need a risk assessment to figure out what to prioritize. When something’s staring you in the face, it’s time to take action.

So when a real crisis hits, the time for the risk assessment is over.

So is the time to ‘wait and see.’

So is the time for asking, ‘why me?’

So is the time for clever, Socratic arguments trying to bargain your way out of trouble.

Every minute spent denying that you need to take action is another minute where the damage increases, and solving the problem becomes more difficult.

Instead, you need to take action. And not just incremental, ‘lets-walk-before-we-run’ type action. We need to take comprehensive, massive actions designed to overwhelm the problem as much as possible.

We need to ‘kitchen sink’ it, throwing everything we have at the issue.

As I write this, the Coronavirus and spread of COVID-19 are at the top of my mind, but this concept applies to any crisis.

There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, and most relevant today, is that anytime the effects of something compound, the impact of any countermeasures are exacerbated the earlier these are put in place. Just as the effects of the problem compound, so do the effects of your interventions. Here’s an example using the Coronavirus. (From an excellent breakdown by Tomas Pueyo which you can read in full here.)

Graph and analysis by Tomas Pueyo

Notice the significant effects that acting just one day earlier can have. Now imagine that instead, the interventions had occurred two days or a week later.
Therefore, there’s an extremely strong case for acting decisively as quickly as possible because you’re going to have a much greater impact on the crisis the earlier you start.

Unusually, with the Coronavirus, we have a pretty good idea of what to do and what will work. From the influenza epidemic of 1918 through MERS, SARS, and ebola, we have a decent playbook of how to deal with this kind of situation. So although we don’t have a cure or vaccine, we do have a response plan. Whether we have the wherewithal to execute it effectively is another matter.

But what do we do in situations where we don’t know the answer?

In these cases, we may need to go through substantial trial and error as we try to find a solution to the problem. This is what BP was faced with in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon blow out. The normal well control options weren’t working and there was no obvious solution, so the company, and oil and gas experts from around the world, tried solution after solution until they found one that worked.

The problem is that this troubleshooting was conducted sequentially. They started with option A, tried that and, when it failed, moved on to option B. When that failed, they moved on to option C, etc.

The problem with this kind of sequential planning and response is that there’s a tendency to start with the easiest option, which also often represents the option of least effort / cost. This leads to a higher likelihood that the first option will fail and imposes a delay before you more on to more serious measures.

The problem is that you know it’s a crisis, so the minimum effort and cost option is unlikely to work. All you are doing is adding a delay before you can deploy what’s going to work.

This is the second reason for taking massive, immediate action.

If you throw as much as possible at the problem as early as possible, then you can significantly shorten the event duration. However, if you try option A, then move on to option B, etc., you can significantly draw out the duration of the event. This means that the cost is much higher because you now have the cumulative cost of planning and executing each contingency, plus the mounting cost of losses and damage.

Here’s a rough illustration of what sequential planning looks like.

Illustration of sequential planning – Andrew Sheves

Meanwhile, if you can ‘kitchen sink’ it and plan concurrently, then you can significantly shorten the time and, subsequently, the cost of the event.

Illustration of concurrent planning – Andrew Sheves

This concurrent approach might look more expensive to start with, and it is because you’re throwing a lot of time, money, and expertise at the problem in one go. If option A is successful, then you might feel that the spend on B and C was wasted. In that case, it would be, but this potential ‘loss’ in B and C is massively offset compared to the cumulative cost of sequentially trying each option. Given that you have no idea what’s going to work, that should be a risk you’re willing to take.

I appreciate that concurrent planning is a massive burden on resources and time, so this has to be balanced against other essential operations. But remember: there’s literally nothing more important that tackling this issue that you face. It has to be an all-hands-to-the-pump effort.

Remember, an incremental approach isn’t going to work in these situations. If you think you need a gallon of water to extinguish a fire in the office, throwing it on cup-by-cup won’t work. However, if you douse it with a couple of bucketfuls, it’s going to be out for sure. There will be damage to the carpet and maybe some nearby papers, but that’s nothing compared to allowing it to spread to the whole floor.

The ideal is always to prevent something before it happens.
The second best option is to spot something coming and be proactive to lessen the effects.
But once the event is upon you, the only thing left is for massive, decisive action.

And remember, once you think it’s time to act, it’s often later than you think. So when you do act, stack the odds in your favor and throw the kitchen sink at the problem.

“If you find yourself in a fair fight, you didn’t plan your mission properly.”

Col. David Hackworth

Make sure your fight feels unfair.

Still from ‘This Is Spinal Tap’ – because sometimes you need to go to 11. By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29658499

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