Friday, September 21, 2012

Try Planning

Recently the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) decided to do some work on the bridge tunnels in the Hampton Roads area.  (For those not familiar with the road network, Norfolk – Chesapeake – Virginia Beach – Portsmouth and Suffolk are connected to Hampton, Newport and the main corridor to Richmond and the rest of the state via three bridges: the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel, the Monitor Merrimac Bridge Tunnel, and the James River Bridge.)  As everyone knows who has visited this area even once, traffic backs up on these bridges fairly quickly and anything that causes any sort of delay on one bridge not only means a monumental back-up on that specific bridge, there is also quickly a build-up of traffic on the other two bridges.

So, it was no surprise that when VDOT decided several weeks ago to use a weekend to work on two bridges simultaneously the result was some truly prodigious weekend backups.  What was a surprise was that apparently some of the folks at VDOT were surprised.

In a completely different, and much more serious incident, the US Ambassador to Libya was killed in a terrorist attack on September 11th.  Three other members of the Embassy staff were also killed.  Elsewhere across the Mid East US Embassies and Consulates were attacked, several were briefly overrun, etc.  In response there were several remarks made by the State department’s various spokesmen that left a good deal to be desired.

While different in many respects, both of these incidents can also serve to point out that basics of good leadership would have helped avoid many of these problems.  In each case simple planning would have revealed that there were shortfalls.

In the more mundane case of VDOT and the tunnels, how hard would it have been to simply look at basic traffic volumes on weekends and recognize that closing more than one bridge at a time creates a very large traffic problem?  In fact, any number of people would have been able to provide that kind of input, but the planners at VDOT failed to seek out or heed such input.  Further, the leadership of VDOT failed to ask fundamental questions about the plan, and about expected consequences of closing two bridge-tunnels at once.  It is worth considering what would have happened if there had been some other crisis while the two bridges were closed and the huge traffic backlog already existed.  What was VDOT’s crisis control plan in such a circumstance?  Obviously, there was none.  There were no dire consequences, but VDOT leadership nevertheless failed in their responsibilities.

Similarly, there was a failure of leadership at the State Department; a failure to have contingency plans in place that everyone understood and could execute; a failure to have approved, reasonable and appropriate messages that supported the US Mission ready for release; a failure to take reasonable security measures for an unreasonable situation (the anniversary of September 11th) – the senior leadership at the State Department should have been aware of the status of contingency plans, pre-planned responses, security status, etc., at each embassy and should have been checking to make sure each was adjusted as the date approached as well as in accordance with any intelligence.  The leadership failed.

The point in all this is not to try to compare a traffic jam to an attack on an embassy or the assassination of an Ambassador and his staff.  Rather, the intent is to point out that in issues mundane or critical, basic leadership and basic planning skills are the same; a good leader, who asks simple questions and insists on reasonable planning for routine contingencies and for crises, can avoid a wide range of dire consequences.  At the same time, a failure of leadership to understand the basics of what the various elements of their organization is doing, a failure to ensure that routine contingency plans are sound, thorough AND are understood, and a failure to take reasonable actions during ‘unreasonable times’ (such as the anniversary of September 11th) results in the death of four, and serious damage to US image and interests.

Leadership is not always easy.  But failing to plan, and failing to ensure that reasonable precautions are taken can make a difficult situation much, much worse.  Many people consider basic planning as unnecessary, believing that they can wing it.  But the simple truth is that few can, even for short periods of time.  Good leaders are always working through possible scenarios in their heads, and constantly challenging their subordinates with ‘what ifs.’ 

Bad leaders let bridges back up and let embassies get overrun.


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