49 When a “command and control” structure encounters a “Black Swan”

Posted on January 17, 2012 by

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The most recent “Black Swan” event – the foundering of the Costa Concordia off a small Italian island – allows me to reflect on what might happen when “command and control” structures are confronted with the unexpected.

“Command and control” or “principal and agent” management philosophies are much the rage these days, and even the public function is being pressed into this mold. I’ve been highly skeptical of them. What might have happened on that fateful night has only confirmed my prejudices.

No one knows for sure what happened. This is the first time, however, that a major accident has been visualized live by the participants. The many photos, films, and recordings highlight a command structure buckling and breaking under stress, and unable to carry out its primary function, to preserve passengers’ lives. Parts of the structure held, and performed splendidly; other parts just failed. The courts are unlikely to consider the outcome as “acceptable under the circumstances”.

In a chain of command, the whole chain is no stronger than its weakest link. Between the impact at 21:42 and the evacuation order at 22:58 more than an hour passed without executive action being taken, and in the end the second in command on the boat may have proceeded on his own responsibility in ordering to evacuate.

During this period, the crucial link in the chain did what one would expect in a “command and control structure” to happen: the captain made it his priority to maintain the “integrity of the chain of command”, informing his superiors and, presumably, possibly asking for instructions which, given the unusual circumstances and the scanty information he could have provided, were hardly forthcoming. The proper reaction would have been delegate the information function, and to act independently, and implement (or improvise) emergency procedures.

Given the circumstances of the accident, I would have understood the captain taking himself out: his loss of legitimacy was beyond repair. He neither disqualified himself, nor took charge. He dithered. And the structure surrounding the captain failed to kick in immediately with a substitute. This is what happens when, in a vertical line of command, all redundancies have been eliminated, and lateral initiatives are frowned upon. This is, in my view, structural, for any ex ante provision for possible “failure” of a link would be perceived as undermining authority.

Let me stress this point, for it risks being drowned in the quaint trope of “sole command on board a ship”. It is inherent in a “command” structure that its has immediate responsibility for the good functioning of the chain under its control, as long as it is in a position to do. When verification is just one phone call away, HQ should have actively explored and verified the facts, e.g by calling other members of the crew, rather than relying solely on information it knew might be tainted. Secondly , a man who has been involved is such a major mishap is not fit to continue in command, irrespective of his responsibility for the event. A general who has lost a battle is relieved of his command at once. HQ should have taken him out, and replaced him. It did not do so.  It should have been the responsibility of the “command” to set out proper procedures for disastrous failure of one of its agents.

If a chain of command without redundancies is created, quality control is of the essence. If, as it now seems, the Captain has a record of reckless behavior, and the system failed to spot it, then the system is at fault. “Command and control” structures in theory allow for information to flow to the command center. But such information is filtered and manipulated self-servingly along the way until it is transformed into obsequious babble.

Systems with redundancies, alternative information channels, and substitute chains of command in an emergency may be less efficient – to many they may seem all too chaotic for day-to day comfort.

Yet, when meeting the Black Swan…

As it is, in just one night the company has suffered grievous if not fatal loss of good-will. The very class of boats may be declared “too big to sail” – a singularity which may reverberate across the whole sector. The tragedy is that we discount “Black Swans” and begrudge the small daily insurance costs of having a redundant system. This leaves us vulnerable to rare and unlikely events which, we have deluded ourselves, we can spot a mile away – or 10 feet under water.

We only need to learn from nature. If I hit my finger with a hammer, rather than the nearby nail, the “order” to withdraw the finger does not go up to my brain for conscious action to be taken. The order is given locally, well before the brain is informed of the mishap.

PS: There have been thousands of shipwrecks over the centuries. Survivors from shipwrecks created narratives of the heroic captain. These narratives may have even all been true. Based on such “experience” we hold the firm conviction that sole command (“the capitan is master on his ship but for God”) is the best way to save a ship in distress. This is literally a case of “survivor bias”. We don’t know the circumstances of all the catastrophic losses. In many cases inept sole command may have caused the loss, and in many other cases it may have made no difference one way or the other. Such are our strongly held convictions.