“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…” So begins one of my favorite classic novels, A Tale of Two Cities; or is it the headline on today’s newspaper?
Two catastrophic hurricanes, Harvey in Texas and Irma in Florida, provide a window into the leadership challenges of strategic decision making at all levels in a community. Both situations are marked by severe consequences, large cones of uncertainty, and significant communication and logistical barriers to execute the decision.
Not Your School Book Problems
Unfortunately, most of us were taught in school that there is one correct answer to any problem and you can find it in the back of the book from someone smarter than you who previously solved it. Real life works differently. There are still right and wrong answers. But there are usually more than one right answer, and sometimes even the “right” answers still suck. The criteria for determining if it is “right” is usually more nuanced and dependent on local conditions. And you almost never get the whole problem set before you have to actually answer the question. 2 + ?? = x. What is x? Good luck with that!
Fortunately, leaders can use these two tips to help evaluate your options: Risk/Reward and Now/Later.
Risk Reward: Governors’ Dilemma
For the Governors, a key part of their decisions was to order evacuations or not? For this they relied heavily on the principle of Risk vs. Reward. Staying AND leaving both had huge risks. There wasn’t a neat, pretty, nice answer that would guarantee no loss of life. Effective leaders compare the relative differences between the options. In Houston, the risk seemed to be mostly the direct assault of Harvey. Moving 4 million people out of Houston would have increased the risk of having the entire population exposed on choked freeways with even less shelter. Allowing people to choose meant those people in higher risk low lying areas could make the call, while those on relatively higher ground could stay.
By contrast, in Florida, “high ground” is a matter of inches not feet. And Irma was angled to rake across the entire state with higher wind and surge risks across a larger area. A higher percentage of the population was already exposed. Yes, the freeways would still be a problem. Strongly encouraging voluntary evacuations at least at this point seemed the wiser call based on the information available.
Risk Reward: Families’ Choices
In either case, the actual decision making came down to the leaders of individual families. Indeed we are still a free country (despite many efforts to the contrary), and we believe liberty is paramount to the most healthy society possible. I have a brother-in-law who is an Air Traffic Controller in Houston. He was definitely outside of the wind/surge blast. As the threat turned to flooding, he evaluated that his neighborhood was relatively higher, and his house was among the highest in that neighborhood. His local risk reward was a little different? Was he right? In his case, the flood waters came to feet of his door, and then subsided.
I have a mother-in-law who is a retired nurse in central Florida. They are still in the midst of the storm. As a nurse who volunteers with the county’s emergency preparedness team, she would normally be on the front lines evacuating the elderly and disabled. However, my father-in-law just happened to be visiting his son-in-law in Houston (boy does he make bad travel plans!). That left my mother-in-law to look after our 90+ years old grandma on her own. The risk of moving her was too great, so she made the call to stay put.
Now or Later: The Scissor Affect
The key challenge in all cases is WHEN to make the decision. As Bill Gates once said, “If you wait till you have perfect information to make the correct decision, you are too late.” While your level of certainty increases as you wait, your options for actions also decrease. This creates a scissor affect. At some point those criss-cross. Leaders want to make the decision on the handle side of the scissors, not the cutting side. No point in knowing the right answer if it is too late to do anything about it.
At the state level, the Governors have dedicated teams that try to anticipate and prepare for emergency scenarios. While they can never predict everything, it does give them a play book of pre-staged decision points. When things do hit the fan and are invariably different than what you expect, at least then they only have to customize amongst thoughtful options versus starting from scratch.
For the family leaders, it is probably the toughest decision anyone could make. Some folks left days ago, when fuel was plentiful and the roads were clear. Others waited when it looked like the cards would go one way, and then when they changed, they had to adapt also. One story of a family in Tampa recalls that the husband preferred to stay and the wife wanted to go. They decided to re-evaluate at the point Irma swung to either the west coast or east coast of Florida. Once it looked like it was headed west, then they jumped in the car and drove north.
Courageous Leadership & Decision Making
Our advice to leaders at all levels is to always be clear in your decision making, at any point in time. It is ok to decide to delay a decision. Just make sure you set a deadline based on time or certain data when you will THEN make your action decision. But don’t avoid a decision because you are waiting for it to show up in the back of the book so you can make sure you get it right. The pages are still being written and none of us will be around to see the book closed.
Use the Risk/Reward ratio to evaluate your options, and manage the Now/Later scissors to time when to make it. Then make your call and do it!