January 04, 2009

When Does a Problem Become a Crisis?

Having recently been on a bus with someone who claimed that Hurricane Katrina wasn't as messed up as the recent snow inundation of Seattle, I pondered the criteria required for a problem to become a crisis.

The problem: Several repeated snowfalls of 4 to 6 inches in a city with virtually no ability to remove snow.

The side effects: Reduced business viability in the form of reduced hours, reduced patronage, and the sheer impossibility of getting anything done when you can't go anywhere.

So, Seattle had some snow. Usually, the snow melts quickly. This time, it didn't, and more snow happened. Thus: a problem.

That being said and accepted, how much snow would it take for someone in Seattle to call in the National Guard? It would be unthinkable to call on the National Guard to get rid of a six inch snowfall.

But what if that same amount of snow fell ten times over ten days? It's like unpacking a suitcase: you take out one thing at a time and don't see any difference, until suddenly: there's the bottom of the thing, peeking out between the jeans and dirty underwear.

This only partially explains how Hurrican Katrina became a severely mismanaged crisis (especially since there was data that indicated a looming crisis). Nevertheless, in many cases, a crisis happens gradually, then suddenly*. You see the gradual changes, but it's hard to see each small problem as part of a collective crisis until it's suddenly too late.

Usually, there is no algorithm for detecting a crisis because a crisis is either easy to detect (example: a 200 foot wall of water about to hit your city) or the crisis is produced by cumulative effects (like moderate snowfalls that happen repeatedly for many days).

I'm not saying Seattle entered the crisis stage a couple weeks ago. I'm just pointing out that it could have, without anyone noticing, if there had been just a little more snow...and a little more...and a little more after that.

* Thanks to Hemingway, or whoever first used that phrase.

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