Carping, Second-Guessing, and Productive Analysis

Strategic analysis is a well-defined system. Unfortunately, very few people understand what analysis is or how it works. The media and politicians will go on endlessly about how situations like Katrina must be "investigated" with the supposed justification being that we must learn from our errors. However, if you don't understand what "analysis" means, the process is a waste of time that degenerates into endless finger-pointing and ass-covering. The 9/11 commission (and virtually every other governmental commission) are great examples. Four common and avoidable mistakes are made daily in what passes for analysis in the media. You cannot listen to any news report about any "problem" for ten minutes without hearing one of these mistakes made and probably the entire conversation based on one of them. Mistake One: Thinking an infinite amount of resources are available. Resources are always limited. The key resource is time. The less time you have, the more limited all other resources are because it takes time to move resources to what they are needed. Whenever people talk about the "federal response" to Katrina, the unspoken assumption is that the federal government (because it is big) can have unlimited resources ready any place at a moments notice. This is never true and never will be true. Mistake Two: Thinking that perfect information is available to decision-makers when decisions must be made. Strategy requires making the best possible decision quickly with limited information. As time passes, information grows, but opportunities are lost. To criticize someone for the decisions made based upon better the information available only later is worse that misleading. It is paralyzing. Too many leaders are afraid to make decisions because they have limited information. As we saw in Katrina, delay in a crisis makes most matters worse. Leaders must be judged on how quickly they make decision's based upon the information available them. You cannot criticize leaders acting without waiting for better information. They cannot know when or even if better information will be available. However, you can and should criticize leaders for waiting WITHOUT acting, when what they know the situations demands action. Mistake Three: Thinking that everything can be done at once. This is directly related to Mistakes One and Two, but it goes beyond the limitation of resources or information. When you choose to do anything, you must choose NOT to do something else. Often, there are constraints where one action must be completed before another. No matter how important step two is, step one takes time. Complaining about why something wasn't done sooner fails to recognize the simple truth that limitations or constraints exist. Everyone is always doing something. Before you can criticize for NOT doing something, you must say what was done first that was unnecessary or a waste of time and effort. For example, we can criticize the fact that a hospital ship's beds were empty during the Katrina effort, their resources were wasted. Of course, once you realize that they had sent all their medical personnel ashore to work in the field, you realize that empty beds make sense. Mistake Four: thinking that there is a perfect solution to any problem with no downside. All solutions have costs. All choices involved tradeoffs. Often the downsides are not totally known at the time decisions are made. The most foolish and destructive form of "gotcha" is focusing on the downside or costs of after a decision is made. There are ALWAYS costs. Acting as if all costs could have been avoided by some perfect decision is just stupid. In the case of Katrina, once the storm headed for the coast, people were going to die and property was going to be destroyed. To act as if some magical decision-making beforehand or during could have saved every life and protected all the property is just silly. Anyone that wants to blame all the suffering on the leaders involved rather than the situation itself is deluded. Good decision-making is a matter of choosing the best available alternatives. Saying endlessly that “more should have been done” is just stupid unless you can show that resources, knowledge, time, and costs were unused. If you think that the federal government has infinite resources, perfect knowledge and can doing everything at once choosing a perfect solution with no costs, you are confusing the politicians with God.