Thursday, 11 June 2020

Looking past the flames

Anyone who has ever worked in a large corporate environment will probably be familiar with the way in which some organisations value crisis management over crisis prevention. In such organisations, some managers get on with the job in a quietly competent way whilst others gain a reputation for being good at firefighting or dealing with immediate emergencies. It is those who put out the fires who get the recognition and promotion whilst those who prevent fires from starting or getting out of control are frequently overlooked. Rarely does anyone ask who started the fire in the first place. The result is that some organisations end up in a more or less permanent state of crisis, because those who rise to the top need to start a continual series of fires in order to continue to display their ability to extinguish them. Unsurprisingly, overall, such organisations tend to underperform. I exaggerate, but not as much as some may think.
Perhaps the PM is trying to apply the same approach to his management of the coronavirus pandemic but without understanding that he’s actually supposed to extinguish the flames to make it work. When pressed by the leader of the Labour Party for presiding over the world’s worst death toll in the pandemic, the PM yesterday asked us all to accept that, on the contrary, the government’s response has been ‘astonishing’. Given his repeated claims that he’s ‘very proud’ of his government’s response, it’s clear that he meant that in the sense of ‘astonishingly good’ rather than ‘astonishingly bad’. He referred, specifically, to the way in which the government had organised the emergency construction of a number of hospitals in readiness to handle a much higher level of casualties. In fairness, the speed with which those hospitals were readied for action was indeed quite an achievement, but I can’t help feeling that it was not an attempt to extinguish the fire in one building so much as a case of equipping an entirely different building with fire extinguishers and sprinklers whilst allowing the first to burn on.
Of course, only a cynic would point out that it avoids the important question about who set the first building alight to begin with, or at the very least fanned the flames. Just as in the corporate environment, it’s the question no-one’s supposed to ask.


Anonymous said...

I think the point you miss and the point the whole world is struggling with is how to 'extinguish the fire', no matter the building.

It's hard stuff to get your head around, granted, but the problem isn't going to go away and there will be plenty more mistakes along the way. That's the nature of what we are dealing with. An earlier quarantine would have led to fewer Covid deaths but a corresponding jump in Flu and other associated deaths. Better or worse, who knows?

At them moment, who cares who set the first building alight or who fanned the flames. Hopefully there will be time enough in the future to ponder over such questions.

John Dixon said...


"...the point the whole world is struggling with is how to 'extinguish the fire'" Actually no, the whole world isn't struggling with that. Some (and I include Trump and Johnson in that) are merely trying - at best - to ensure a controlled burn; they are making no effort whatsoever to extinguish the fire. If they were, they might be taking notice of the rather more successful strategies being employed elsewhere and giving some thought to how they might be adapted for use here.

"...there will be plenty more mistakes along the way" Yes, of course there will. But that's no reason for complacency or not trying to avoid mistakes, let alone for deliberate pursuit of actions which they know are going to make things worse.

"An earlier quarantine would have led to fewer Covid deaths but a corresponding jump in Flu and other associated deaths." Assuming (from your style) that you are the same Anon who regularly comments here, we established a while ago that statistics isn't exactly a speciality of yours. The number of 'excess deaths' is a good indicator that those same people would not have died at this time had there not been a pandemic. Whilst some of those would have died from other causes, the number would not have been 'corresponding', and suggesting that it would have been is just plain silly. They would have died eventually, of course - one statistic on which I would hope we can agree (there's no hope for you if we can't) is that human mortality overall is 100%. Everything else is about timing and cause, and what we know is that - to date - around 60,000 people in the UK have died earlier than they would have done in other circumstances. That might well mean that we will (at some point) see a statistical deficit of deaths because the people who would otherwise have died at that point have already gone. Given the 100% statistic, it all must zero out in the end, but that's not much of an excuse for pursuing a policy of allowing large swathes of the population to die earlier than they otherwise would have done.

"Better or worse, who knows?" Just about everybody except, apparently, you. That's what 'excess deaths' means.

"...who cares who set the first building alight or who fanned the flames" A lot of people care, actually. You don't, obviously - that is your right. But when they're still at it, I think it's an entirely valid question to be asking now.