Lunch with Arn Howitt (When Failure is NOT an Option)

Summary:I had lunch yesterday with Arn Howitt and Lydia Segal. Arn teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and is Executive Director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government.

I had lunch yesterday with Arn Howitt and Lydia Segal. Arn teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, and is Executive Director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government. He and Dutch Leonard run the Program on Emergency Preparedness and Crisis Management at the Kennedy School. These are two wicked smart guys with much to say regarding emergency response strategy and planning.

How is emergency preparedness and crisis management related to project failure? In IT, project failures cost time and money. However, in public emergency management, lack of preparedness or poor incident response can cost lives. Emergency response is an area where the cost of “project failure,” so to speak, is directly measured in human suffering. Therefore, public policy planning related to emergency response and management can be a fertile source of ideas regarding “fail-safe” project management strategy. I believe these ideas can be applied directly to private sector business and IT.

If you’re interested in this line of reasoning, see these papers written by Arn and Dutch. In particular, read “Against Desperate Peril: High Performance in Emergency Preparation and Response,” from a forthcoming book called Communicable Crises, edited by Deborah E. Gibbons. Here is a quote from the paper:

“Routine” vs. “Crisis” Emergencies. When a particular type of emergency happens sufficiently frequently in an area where people have (or should have) resources to organize and prepare, it becomes a routine event. This doesn’t make it good, and it may still be quite severe—but it does tend to make it potentially manageable. We refer to such situations as routine or familiar emergencies to emphasize the opportunity that their regularity creates for organized preparation and practiced response. A house fire in a jurisdiction that has a well-resourced and practiced fire department, a moderate earthquake in an earthquake zone in which people have prepared for such events, a typical hurricane in a region where hurricanes are frequent and hurricane preparation is practiced—these are routine emergencies.

By contrast, some of the emergencies we confront are not like those we have previously experienced. By virtue of unusual scale, a previously unknown cause, or an atypical combination of sources, responders face challenges in these crisis or novel emergencies, the facts and implications of which cannot be completely assimilated in the moment of crisis. These emergencies are thus distinguished from more familiar emergencies by the presence of significantly new circumstances and different kinds of intellectual challenges.

As a business example of this, I know a senior banking executive who describes robberies as being “routine” incidents without sufficient importance to warrant interrupting the COO during his busy day. It’s an interesting way to view events that most people would consider far from routine.

Business and IT leaders involved in managing project failures should study public policy experts such as Arn and Dutch, who examine high stakes situations where the cost of failure is truly high.


Topics: Banking, Security


Michael Krigsman is recognized internationally as an analyst, strategy advisor, enterprise advocate, and blogger. For CIOs and IT leadership, he addresses issues such as innovation, business transformation, project-related business objectives and strategy, and vendor planning. For enterprise software vendors and venture-funded star... Full Bio

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