Matthew Broderick and Hurricane Katrina Hurricane Katrina was approaching the Alabama coast in late August 2005. She had been recorded as a category 5 hurricane creating fear and trepidation amongst the citizens and officials in New Orleans.
Matthew Broderick and Hurricane Katrina
Hurricane Katrina was approaching the Alabama coast in late August 2005. She had been recorded as a category 5 hurricane creating fear and trepidation amongst the citizens and officials in New Orleans. Brigadier Matthew Broderick was in charge of Homeland Security Operations Centre in Washington DC. It was his department’s job to alert his boss Secretary Chertoff head of Homeland Security the White House and the Interagency Incident Management Group whenever a homeland incident reached disaster status and required Federal involvement.
Broderick knew that if the levees surrounding New Orleans were breached a disaster would ensue and Federal support would be needed: much of New Orleans is below sea level. He therefore needed good information about the progress of the hurricane and the impact on the levees.
Broderick had plenty of experience with hurricanes in Florida and with typhoons in Asia. He had been running the Operations Centre for three years and had previously run operations centres for the US military in Asia one of which involved the evacuation of South Vietnam.
From these experiences he had learned that early information from a disaster situation is often exaggerated. He had found it best to wait for what he called “ground truth”: information from the field from a trusted source. Unfortunately for a city below sea level delays can be catastrophic. Broderick had not experienced a hurricane over a city below sea level.
Katrina hit at 8.00 am on Monday August 28. The first reports of major flooding were received in Broderick’s office by 8.30. Broderick then spent the rest of Monday waiting for “ground truth”. He issued situation reports throughout the day stating that the position was not clear.
By 5.00 pm he had nine reports of levee breaches and eight other reports of major flooding. But he also had a report from the Army Corps of Engineers saying that they could find no levee breaches and a CNN TV report of people celebrating in the French Quarter (a part of New Orleans above sea level) saying that they had “dodged the bullet”.
Broderick judged that the “ground truth” was good news and sent a situation report at 6.00 pm saying that New Orleans was safe although further information was needed to confirm this judgment. He then left work and went home for the night.
In the morning when he arrived at work he found his subordinates had issued a report suggesting that the levees had been breached. He immediately sent a counter email saying that no action should be taken until more information had come in. He did not confirm that New Orleans needed Federal help until 2.00 pm on Tuesday 30 hours after the first breach.
The brain is a fallible instrument. Neuroscience tells us that judgements are formed in the subconscious and that the process is driven by emotions rather than rationality. Of course judgments are also processed in the conscious rational part of the brain; but the conscious processing is more about seeking confirmation than seeking contradiction. Hence we find it difficult to correct our own errors.
This has major implications for decision processes. First the process should acknowledge human fallibility rather than presume that leaders are wise. Second judgment risk should be assessed for each major decision. Third when the risk of an error is deemed to be high there should be an explicit discussion about how to make the process for this particular decision more robust.
There are four sources of fallible judgments other than ignorance: misleading experiences misleading previous judgments conflicting self-interest and inappropriate attachments. Each of these creates emotional memories that can disrupt judgment. When one or other of these red flags is present there are four ways of strengthening the decision process – more data and experience more dialogue and challenge more governance from a higher authority more monitoring of outcomes so that bad decisions can be corrected quickly.
Matthew Broderick’s previous experiences misled him. But he is not unique. Tony Blair’s experiences in Sera Leone and Kosovo misled him when deciding to take Britain to war in Iraq. Jurgen Schrempp’s previous judgment that Mercedes needed to be a volume manufacturer influenced his decision as CEO of Daimler to buy Chrysler. Andrew Fastow’s self-interest when CFO of Enron caused him to believe that setting up special purpose vehicles would help Enron rather than contribute to its demise. Some of these disasters might have been avoided if these leaders had been supported by decision processes sensitive to the brain’s fallibility.
These ideas are explored more fully on Ashridge’s strategic decision making course.