Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Fault Lines in New Orleans

Former President Bill Clinton put his finger on the fiasco in New Orleans---no one person was in charge. There was the illusion with FEMA, the Federal Emergency Measures Agency, but something has gone terribly awry.

As one military commander noted whose troops will be rebuilding the infrastructure, there are two views from which to manage the situation: the soda straw and the 360. Although he meant that you have to be there to understand what it is really like, on a larger level the soda straw approach might aptly be the right image underlying the problem.

It has taken Russ Honore, the no nonsense three star army general, to fill the leadership vacuum at the top. As one television commentator exclaimed, he is everywhere 20 hours a day, hands on, cutting through the bureaucracy, getting the job done, and strongly exclaiming his non-acceptance of b.s. The people of New Orleans clapped as they watched him make order out of chaos. The New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin couldn’t be happier. He’s now got a buddy who is listening and who takes action.

I have a coaster on my desk with a famous saying: "A deviation of a hair’s breath at the center leads to an error of a hundred miles". Yet another Commission on a preventable disaster will be struck and will describe in minute detail not one but many critical errors by leaders who should have known better. The echos of prior disasters such as 9/11 and the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle crashes will most certainly be heard.

What are the echos? Silos. Inadequate sharing of timely information among the accountable agencies. No overall accountability (or power) by the right organization to plan and coordinate. Cultures that prevent people below the top from speaking up. Policy, structural and financial decisions that fly in the face of compelling evidence to the contrary---a heads in the sand approach to preventing disasters when multiple studies by reputable experts are ignored or minimized.

The 9/11 Report called for a different way of organizing government that is quick, imaginative and agile in its responsiveness, not ad hoc and incremental. Repeatedly it used the term unity, as a means of prevention and execution when trouble happens. For example, strategic intelligence and operational planning must work hand in hand. It’s a no brainer intellectually, but, in reality, much tougher to do without leaders to guide the way from end to end.

We too often think of leadership as the strategic part of the equation and operational planning as management. The New Orleans chaos suggests otherwise---we need leadership at each step of the way for decision making success and implementation effectiveness. Strategy and action are intertwined. The 360 view is essential.

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