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Failure is Fertilizer

March 24, 2010

Much of what passes for recovery falls under the broad heading “learning from our mistakes.” This approach to learning leaves a lot to be desired.

For starters, when we examine our failures, we almost inevitably focus more on the consequences than the causes. When we do consider causes, we tend to focus only on execution errors, forgetting that mistakes arise from failures of intention, failures of execution, or both.  And, finally, our efforts to address failures all too often tempt us to look for someone to blame before we have identified something we should change.

When problems that lead us down the path to failure have no simple or clearly identifiable solutions, we often assume that no one is to blame. This overlooks the fact that we often had a choice over the path we took, or whether to embark on the journey at all.

Accepting responsibility for recovery begins by acknowledging that failure is like fertilizer. A little bit can help us grow. But too much can kill us.

A good gardener only applies fertilizer when it is indicated, and, even then, she carefully selects the fertilizer to match the soil conditions, climate and a host of other variables. When we look to learn from failure, it would behoove us to take similar care and exercise considerable discretion.

Here are ten principles that can help us approach recovery from a more positive and productive perspective:

1.     Acknowledge the loss. Do not start by assuming the future will be better simply because the worst has already happened. Allow people time to grieve and take note of the things they valued about the people and places they lost. These values figure prominently when it comes to deciding a vision of the future.

2.     Avoid the temptation to blame others. We would all like to believe someone else is responsible for our misfortune. When we treat those affected by disaster like victims rather than recognizing them as resources, that is effectively what we are doing. It is too easy and far too convenient to assume anyone experiencing a disaster either had it coming or is no longer capable of taking care of himself. No single decision or action produces a disaster; it takes a community. Leave it to the community to decide when (or even if) it’s appropriate to lay blame. In the immediate aftermath of an event, those directly affected by a disaster usually have much higher priorities and would rather get to work rebuilding their lives.

3.     Question assumptions. When we look at the effects of a disaster, it is far too easy to allow ourselves to assume others could see it coming as clearly as we see it after the fact. Even well-prepared communities that have carefully assessed their hazards and vulnerabilities cannot foresee with accuracy or precision how any particular part of the community or its infrastructure will perform when disaster strikes. Anyone who thinks otherwise is itching for a fight.

4.     Account for the effects of actions and intentions. Our assumptions tend to inform our intentions. When our assumptions prove incorrect, we should consider the untoward consequences unexpected only insofar as they are unwanted. Unless we recognize and take responsibility for our original intentions and the latent effects of the decisions and actions they influenced, we are liable to lose the respect of others even if we do not repeat our mistakes.

5.     Assess what worked. Murphy may be an optimist, but he is not an emergency manager. Even when it seems that everything that could go wrong did go wrong, a surprising number of things probably worked well or at least better than expected in light of what happened. In fact, most disasters result from a series or chain of small errors the absence of any one of which could either have prevented or at least minimized the subsequent consequences. Many big things often go right even when the tumblers fall into place and allow a small error to unlock the door opening everyone up to a major disaster. When the cause or consequences were foreseen or even voiced but not acted upon, it can be especially important to acknowledge the courage of those who came forward and the correctness of their actions.

6.     Analyze alternatives. In the heat of disaster response, officials rarely consider multiple possibilities or competing courses of action. Even when the situation seems clear and everyone agrees on the goals, the stakes are often too high, the resources too constrained, and the time pressure too great to make good the enemy of good enough. As the dust settles, literally, and ambiguity gives way to awareness of the task ahead, decision-makers must avoid falling into the trap of making decisions about recovery the same way they made them during response. If alternatives are not immediately apparent, it is almost always a sign that we are trying to move too quickly or have too few people involved in framing the problem, much less offering potential solutions.

7.     Access local knowledge and listen to aspirations. Like a family confronting the grieving process, communities often need rituals and structure to help them embrace the changes that come from the passing of a loved one. The early phases of a disaster response are too hectic to provide this structure, but as the response winds down and recovery begins, officials need to recognize that involving the people affected by the disaster in decisions about their future begins with simple questions. Many of these are mundane questions like those surrounding a funeral such as burial or cremation, the location of a memorial plot, picking songs for the funeral or memorial service and a designating a charity to receive memorial gifts. The answers guiding individual preferences about such matters often reflect the local culture and customs. As time goes by, people will begin to take charge of their lives again, and they should be encouraged to do so at their own pace. If you listen carefully, you can tell how far long they have come by the sorts of aspirations they express for their futures.

8.     Act with local assent. Aside from the stark reminder of our vulnerability to forces greater than ourselves, disasters remind us how much we depend on one another for the simplest things. When an individual or community asks for help, it does not give up its right to make decisions for itself, especially about matters that have a direct impact on its safety, health or welfare. Too much aid is conditioned either on evidence of need or donor expectations. Giving should make both the donor and the recipient feel good about themselves. Real giving comes not from an open hand, but from an open mind and an open heart. Leaving decisions about how aid is dispensed and what it gets spent on with those who receive the help rather than those who lend a hand should go without saying, but it doesn’t. If we are wise enough to leave well enough alone and let people make decisions for themselves, they will often surprise us by asking for less than we are prepared to give, using it more widely than we could, doing better work than we expect and in the end getting back on their feet faster and fitter.

9.     Anchor all changes in community capital. One of the best ways to assure donors that their resources will be used wisely is to leverage community capital. Even the poorest communities have vast and diverse stores of capital, many of which remain under appreciated before a disaster and therefore unrecognized after one occurs. Almost everyone appreciates the importance of financial and material capital, and the importance of natural capital to the development of communities and their economies is well known. But none of these resources will produce meaningful gains in community welfare without robust stores of human and social capital. If nothing else, disasters present an ideal opportunity to develop people and rally them around a cause bigger than themselves. Sustainable development cannot occur unless communities use their resources to become more resilient.

10. Atone and attest. Even when communities see no value in laying blame for a disaster at the feet or any one person or institution, they cannot move on without accepting individual and collective responsibility for the failures that left them vulnerable in the first place. Any successful recovery requires people to make amends for such errors and affirm their intention to do things that reflect the lessons they learned from the last disaster.

If failure in the form of disaster is like fertilizer, then disaster recovery must take account of the additional steps required to grow more resilient communities. With these ten principles in mind, it should be clear that aerating the ground, selecting our seeds carefully, casting them freely, watering them regularly and sharing responsibility for the weeding and the harvesting are essential to success.

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