Recently, not far from where I live, there is an intersection that had a fatal car accident; a large cattle-carrying truck and a small car (with 3 passengers). Unfortunately, 2 passengers in the car died as a result of the crash with a 3rd being air-lifted to a hospital in critical condition. An accident is a common occurrence on roads acrossCanada, as there are in almost all other countries as well.
What struck me as odd and was the inspiration for writing this article, came from a statement made by one of the 1st responders interviewed by journalists. On the radio, the announcer suggested that the accident was caused by, and is the fault of, the government. There was no talk of other causes for the incident; just the immediate idea that someone else is to blame for the situation; in this case, the government. Huh? Might the car been speeding or the truck went through a red light / stop sign? How are peoples driving habits the fault of the government?
What was even stranger is that the person being interviewed said that the intersection causes problems for drivers. The intersection. Really? It – meaning the intersection- gets up in the morning and causes problems for drivers? I don’t think so. It may be a busy intersection but it isn’t a living and breathing thing that actually causes accidents. Drivers are what cause accidents. Even if the road is wet, it’s up to the driver to modify their driving to adapt to the changing conditions; if they don’t, well, their asking for trouble. The intersection itself doesn’t change.
It got me thinking about corporations and how they are very much the same. They can be heading in a specific direction and not adapting to the situation around them. They’ll come barrelling down their strategic business path and come to a problem and then look for blame when things don’t go their way or they encounter some obstacle (like a incident, disaster or emergency situation. They weren’t traveling with both eyes open or being mindful of what’s happening. In DR/BCM terms,. They weren’t cognisant of the potential dangers that can lie in wait and hinder a corporation. They look for someone of something to blame but the situation they are in came about because of their lack of planning, preparedness and response. The lack of foresight and lack of risk mitigation measures (among many other things) is what really caused the problem. Trying to find blame won’t fix the problem.
What other things go through the minds of corporate executives when a crisis or disaster occurs? I’ve sat through many ‘incident reviews’ or ‘disaster response’ meetings and there are some responses by various levels of managers that crop up continuously, regardless of the situation at hand. Over the last few years, there have been many corporate disasters/crises in the headlines and there have been a few interesting responses to questions posed by those seeking clarification.
I’ve listed a few of these responses; these discussions that occur during some of the meetings I’ve been in and some of the things we’ve seen on TV over the last couple of years. See if you recognize any of these and would your own corporation do any better. Some may contradict others in some ways but these are all part of the overall ‘blame’ game in one form or another.
- Focus on Blame Not Response: If you must find blame, it should be done as the first thing. A corporations first job is to respond and mitigate the impact of the situation on it’s facilities, reputation, clients, staff and inevitably, the bottom line. The reaction that some have is to immediately try and find fault – someone to point the finger at – rather than ensure the right actions are being taken in the misunderstood view that if the person (or persons) at fault can be found then the situation can be resolved. In other words, if they find who created the situation, those individuals can then fix the problem and then be reprimanded accordingly.
- It’s Not Us, It’s Them: The classic finger pointing exercise. Whenever something occurs it’s because of something or someone else. An example is the blame game played out during the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill (2010). The owner of the oil rig pointed the finger at BP while BP pointed the finger at the oil rig company and so forth. Everyone was blaming everyone else for the cause and it took some time before BP finally took responsibility (grudgingly). No one likes to be the one who is to blame but it certainly goes a long way if you take responsibility. Pointing fingers is like children blaming their imaginary friend for the spilt milk but in the business world, it’s not advantageous for corporations to do that.
- Downplay the Cause: If by any chance it is the corporations fault, they downplay the impact it has on their customers, employees and the surrounding areas. Think the recent Japanese duel disaster (tsunami and nuclear) and how the government at stated that the nuclear incident wasn’t as catastrophic as the media or public made it out to be. This later turned out to be false and the disaster was worse than what was being communicated. To a degree,
- Band-Aid Fixes: Many responses to disasters and crises is to put a temporary solution (or response) in place in hopes the problem goes away – and it will…for a time. Like all band-aids it eventually falls off and you’re right back to the initial problem all over again. Not only is the corporation looking for someone or something to blame for the initial incident but it sets itself up for the same thing to reoccur down the road. If the initial incident is the fault of someone or something other than the corporation itself, the temporary fix is certainly the fault of the corporation because it had the opportunity to set things right so that it doesn’t reoccur.
- ‘It’ Flows Downhill: To often it’s the individuals in the trenches that gets the blame for the incident, when they may have only been following the directions of those higher up the corporate ladder. If there’s a mistake made and it causes a disaster or crisis, the blame becomes that the individuals didn’t follow the directions properly or they didn’t identify potential hazards to management prior to initiating the said directives. But then, you know what happens if you question ‘higher-ups.’ I’ve sat in meetings where every manager at the table (in the command centre) laid blame at the feet of their employees; oh, and the VP was in the room at the time, the individuals in question weren’t represented.
- If and Then: Some people will blame past decisions or actions on the cause; and they could be right about that. If ‘x’ decision was different, then the disaster would not have occurred. This is true of many failed project implementations and change initiatives. Sometimes the wrong decision is made and this does impact future activities and can cause major problems. However, whether there is a bad decision or not, there should still have been some sort of contingency/response plan in place for the corporation to deal with the crisis. The decision – good or bad – can be discussed later, as it’s still a trigger for a contingency plan and if there is not plan in place, the disaster could have been caused regardless of the decision itself. To plan means not proper response; don’t blame the decisions (except if the decision is not to develop a plan in the first place).
- Money Issues: Some will blame the situation on money problems and sometimes the situation is exactly that; money problems. However, the blame on money is never having had financial resources dedicated to putting a DR/BCM plan or program in place. But, the decision to do that still comes from the executives; money doesn’t decide how it’s spend, the corporation does. Not having a plan or program in place isn’t monies fault; it’s the corporations.
- Invisible Executives: Just because a corporation has a communications expert or spokesperson, they can only be in front of the camera for so long. Eventually, the public, the media and the corporation itself needs to see the executives step up, roll up their sleeves and get involved with the situation. They can’t be invisible and leave all the talking and decisions to others. In the end, the executives are the ones responsible for the corporation’s success and they’ve got to be seen as being in control, or apart of, the solutions and responses being implemented.
- Do Nothing: When in doubt and you don’t know what to do, say or how to help people, do nothing. Simply ignore the situation and it will go away. It might remind you of the Tiger Woods situation a couple of years back where he simply didn’t comment on the problem with his wife (and the various phone call messages he had) believing that it would all blow over. It never did and look what happened to his ‘happy’ family. If a corporation does nothing then it can’t be blamed for doing the wrong thing and it also misses out on being seen as doing the right thing.
Often, someone is to blame for an incident, whether it’s intended or whether it’s simply a keystroke error or a configuration setup mistake. What causes the incident to become a disaster is the lack of planning and foresight and that is the real culprit. If blame is to be laid anywhere, it has to be laid here; at the feet of those corporations that don’t believe a disaster will occur to them. When it does, there is no one else to blame but themselves because no one is impervious to an incident on any scale. Then shock and surprise sets in when something does occur and the first reaction if to find out who caused it and why, when the real focus is to get back up and gain some semblance of normality.
The ‘blame game’ is one of the most played games there is; in Change Management, Incident Management, Problem Management, and Disaster/Continuity/Emergency Management and in Project Management. Good project managers (and I’ve known some really good ones) will immediately look for the impact and minimize or resolve it immediately, rather than playing the blame game and finding the cause. That will have its time of course; I’m not saying you shouldn’t find the cause; sometimes its part of the investigation to find the right response/resolution.
As with all corporate incidents, the company must take responsibility for its actions or its responses to someone else’s actions.