Learning from Disaster Stories

A blog in HBR yesterday by Dan McGinn featured an interview with the author of a new book about an accident in a harbour tunnel and a discussion of what ‘disaster lit’ teaches about decision making and risk management.

In the interview, are range of risk and learning related concepts are discussed including war-games, repetition, and inherent falibility.

Maybe the blog writer was just trying to find some more interesting, and HBR audience related, issues to link with the book’s promotion. To me, the question about learning from disaster wasn’t really addressed. None the less, the scatter of ideas was a useful indication of the range of thinking that I come across in the risk / preparedness / learning communities.

If anything, the thing that someone ‘learns’ by reading a good narrative about an accident or disaster is to open their mind to the extent that a seemingly well managed environment can turn into chaos – often exacerbated by a collection of well intentioned, though narrowly focused, small decisions.

The book’s author, Neil Swidey, suggests that one thing he ‘learned’ through his research was how much more likely we are to make mistakes that can lead to accidents when we are tired or overwhelmed by extreme conditions.

Both of these examples are general insights and people never ‘learn’ a general insight or principle without some direct experience of the application of it. Even when you experience it once, it’s difficult to show some positive evidence of ‘lessons learnt’.

The most successful approach to ‘learning’ discussed in the article describes the ‘ton of simulations’ which NASA employed to train astronauts and mission control. Such simulations allowed the participants to apply skills in innovative ways and become more adept at responding to challenges through a disciplined application of procedures. This kind of experience helps people to internalise general principles and also find new principles through the patterns that arise over continued practice.

Think about your last training course – how much of it involved listening to narratives about generalisations? When you were tasked to apply a new skill, how realistic was the context?

The more you exercise your skills in a variety of situations, even simulated situations, the more prepared you are to adapt and respond to challenges when they arise. If you can achieve this across your team,  your next incident won’t provide any fodder for ‘disaster lit’.

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