Preparing for tomorrow while learning from today

By Tim Ammon and Tom Platt on October 26, 2020

No one really knows who first said that generals always fight the last war, but it is so ingrained in our thinking because the ability to look back is easier than the ability to look forward. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a myriad of instances where our institutions and organizations were unprepared for an event like a national pandemic. However, this does not necessarily mean that we have all failed by not anticipating the pandemic and having a playbook on the shelf.

A consistent organizational response to a service disruption is to conduct a surface assessment of what we missed the last time and build procedures and practices to make sure that we do not miss that again. This is the essence of the “fighting the last war mentality” and is common in response to audits, adverse events like accidents, and (unfortunately) consulting projects. What we need to realize is the “clarity” that hindsight appears to bring is just as misplaced as the certainty with which many of us make predictions about the future.

Our suggestion for how organizations should address the issue of preparing for future service disruptions is to think about three specific questions:

  1. Is our next major disruption likely to have the same source as our last one? – We strongly believe that the answer to this question is no. If we spend all of our time building our organizational capabilities to respond to a pandemic, we will miss far more common and far more likely disruptions like floods, hurricanes, and snowstorms. 
  2. Have we separated what happened from why it happened? – Organizational evaluations often confuse the outcome from why it happened. Evaluators often miss the influence of luck (good and bad) and overstate our individual influence on the results (normally in a positive way). Any assessment of the response to COVID must be structured and executed in a way that clearly connects the why and the what of the successes and failures.
  3. Do we know what authority we have and whose authority we need to get changes implemented? – Often times our best plan is not in other people’s interest. As we evaluate what changes need to be made, we also need to identify whose support is necessary. Only by having an operational and organizational plan can we hope to fully implement the changes needed to resolve issues associated with current and future service disruptions.

Learning from our past is a crucial element for organizational progress. However, if we are not clear eyed about how we will teach ourselves it is very likely we will learn the wrong lessons. At DSG, we believe that creating structured analytical and decision-making process about how to approach the future, particularly related to highly disruptive events, is crucial to learning the right lessons from things that have gone wrong. Please reach out if you would like us to help you design an approach that works for you.