Blog

Vigilance

Not Your Average Feds

I spent an interesting and spirit-raising day with senior executives of the Social Security Administration recently. I delivered learning experiences on “Vigilant Leadership” – sessions on how to look into the future, forecast, prepare flexibly, and take action.

I work with federal agencies from time to time. GSA, NASA, and the National Credit Union Administration are all past clients. Federal agency leadership gets a lot of bad flack in the media, from legislators, and from the general public.

What I saw, heard, and experienced in Baltimore with their top tier of SSA professionals differs from what one sees and hears in the press. These are smart, imaginative, and well-informed managers. They’re some of the best I’ve seen in 25 years of doing this work.

When I’m doing an executive education seminar at least half the session time is interaction about the future. Whether it’s question and answer or small group activity this important part of a learning experience is approached differently by every group with which I work. In the SSA’s case the eagerness to tackle foresight, emerging issues, and inevitable challenges was some of the most keen I’ve ever seen. It was even more encouraging to see it come from these very senior groups that included the number two person in the agency.

The management is pragmatic and realistic. They know they’re administering a system under huge demographic and economic pressures. But they also recognize and are anticipating social change, generational differences in interaction, shifting workplace habits, privacy concerns, and the long term impact of current deficit spending.

I was impressed.

The Wild Card Weeks

Wild Cards are lower probability, high impact events. We’ve not seen a few weeks like the last three for some time. I’m not a believer in the adage of “threes” when it comes to these events but there are lessons and implications for the three we’ve just seen.
A volcano erupts and ash plus extreme caution by air travel regulators paralyzes a system we take for granted. Millions are stranded. Millions, by any currency measure, are lost. Alternative transportation comes into short-term vogue and overloads. Normalcy returns and we forget. But that volcano is still smoking and just because it’s not page 1 news we relax.
An oil platform explodes and lives are lost. Initial concerns about leaks are downplayed by company executives. Days pass and a slick surfaces. There’s action but no results. Now we’re staring into one of the great environmental disasters of our generation.
Initial reports of an over-reliance on a “blowout preventer” will be examined in hearings and investigations for the next 3-4 years. Recriminations from environmentalists take on stronger weight. A decision to open more offshore drilling could not have been worse timed. We realize that we’re totally unprepared for the scale of the problem, contingencies for stopping the gusher of oil on the bottom, and we’re unenlightened or purposefully ignorant about the risks of the technology.
A car bomb fails to detonate in New York’s Times Square. If it had a fireball would have killed dozens, perhaps more. Vehicles nearby would have burned and exploded. The ensuing panic would have injured hundreds. Midtown Manhattan would have emptied as reports of the notifying phone call leaked out. The caller said it was only a diversion for a larger device. Transportation would have slammed to a standstill. Offices remained empty for Monday morning. Absenteeism spiked. Broadway theaters cancelled performances. And the world’s biggest financial center would have stopped for days. The economic after-effect would have climbed into the hundreds of millions for a devices that cost only a few hundred dollars.
When the alleged bomber is arrested within 53 hours we relax. Investigations of the origin, connection to terrorist groups, evaluation of police response will come. There will be criticism of no-fly lists, airport security, even Craigslist. But when the crisis is over our thinking returns to the mundane.
Therein lies the problem. Extraordinary events like these should prompt contingency thinking and action. They should trigger better preparation, encouragement of public involvement, and planning for the next inevitable event. Too often we don’t look at the next event, only the last event.
I’m hoping the wild-cards of the past few weeks result in serious contemplation and preparation for:
  • Disruptions of air travel for substantial periods of time on the part of industry and government.
  • Development of even better alternatives to face-to-face communication to back up or reduce long distance travel.
  • Better technology and layered backup systems for the next generation of deepwater drilling like that necessary for tapping the even deeper oilfields off the coast of Brazil.
  • An acceleration of alternative energy sources and, most importantly, conservation.
  • A renewed recognition that many man-made systems have Faustian consequences that should be contemplated before adoption, not after.
  • Higher levels of vigilance among all peoples in all places for those that would indiscriminately destroy life.
  • Smooth transitions to pre-thought Plans B, C, D, and Z when the worst happens.