How to Improve Your Next Disaster Response

Conflate, v. a: to bring together, fuse; b: to confuse


Conflate, v. a: to
bring together, fuse; b: to confuse

The federal government’s response, under the direction of
the Obama Administration, to the Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf has
been to conflate the spill at the bottom of the sea with the clean up at the
water’s edge in Louisiana. While one causes the other, their solutions require
different approaches and technologies. Fusing two separate issues creates one
confusing problem.

By conflating the spew with the clean up the Obama
Administration committed the classic error of conflating responsibility for
outcome with impetus for action. Action to stop the flow and clean up the
wetlands and beaches should be his administration’s prime responsibility. Right
now, holding BP accountable is secondary to getting the leak stopped and the
shoreline clean.

Conflation is not simply a matter of semantics; it is a root
cause of organizational dysfunction. As we have seen in the Gulf disaster,
problems become entwined with processes so that inactivity supersedes
responsibility. As a result, nothing gets solved; and as we have seen, people

What’s happening in the Gulf mirrors what happens in many
organizations when problems are not defined and people in charge lack the authority
and responsibility to do their jobs. When that happens, workers receive make
work assignments that spur activity but do not contribute to progress. Little
is accomplished because no one has the problem or its solution in clear focus.

Avoiding such confusion is not easy but if those in charge
at every level were to ask themselves and their peers three questions it could
improve clarity of purpose, direction, and progress. And here’s the good news:
these questions are stone simple. So simple in fact they get railroaded by the
urgency of acting now, when in reality we should be thinking now and acting


What’s our purpose?
In the Gulf, it is to stop the leak and clean the shoreline. Plain and simple.
Holding people accountable comes later. Organizations faced with problems need
to identify the root cause of the problem and consider how to solve it. Now
begins the process of thinking quickly as well as actively by identifying

What do we need to do
Here is where conflation is most dangerous. By acting on the outcome
before you have a solution, you put the cart before the horse. In the case of the Gulf disaster, crews and materials were sent to the well-head but little
was done initially to protect the beaches and wetlands. The way to avoid such
confusion is to think through the problem, marshal your resources, choose your
problems, and attack them swiftly. Then you move to the next set of problems.

What is our goal?
In the Gulf, it is a clean ocean and restored wetlands. Unless you tackle both
problems simultaneously, neither outcome will be achieved.  Applied brainpower typically works. As
Stephen Covey has taught, you envision the outcomes and work out the steps to
achieve it. Think about what you want to achieve and work backwards.

Making sense of the answers is the next step. That requires
a concentration of efforts as well as manpower. But by asking such questions,
as well as others you may develop, helps focus attention on the problem and
concentration on the solution without conflating the two. That requires on the
ground leadership.

So the person in charge needs to ask: what do I do? Some
leaders can solve the problems themselves by taking charge. If that is not
possible, the leader finds a point person to whom he assigns total responsibility
and authority, and has that person go at the problem with all due haste. To be
fair, President Obama has done just that by designating Admiral Thad Allen as
his point person to coordination actions in the Gulf.

Asking good questions will not tame an oil spill a mile down
in the ocean or prevent the desecration of precious wetlands, but forethought
can set the table for execution that will avoid conflation of purpose and
solution and achieve intended goals.


John Baldoni is an
internationally recognized leadership development consultant, executive coach,
author, and speaker. In 2010 Top Leadership Gurus named John one of the world’s
top 25 leadership experts. John’s new book is 
Lead Your Boss: The Subtle Art of Managing Up
(Amacom 2009). Readers are welcome to visit John’s website,