Niagara Gazette

November 27, 2012

BRADBERRY: Managing the unexpected, or not ...

By Bill Bradberry
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — “Well, if it ain’t one dad gum thing, its two” I mumbled inside my head where no one could hear me, but it was all over my face, everyone around me could sense my frustration, we were all thinking the same thing.


After sitting in the most uncomfortable wheelchair in the world for over an hour at what must be the busiest pharmacy in the world, the absolute least friendly lady in the world informed me from behind the counter that there was something wrong with my insurance card, that she could not process my order, that I could not get the medicine the doctor had prescribed, that I should step out of line, call my insurance company, resolve my problem and get back in line again.


Having just spent the better part of the morning, most of it in the waiting rooms at another post –op appointment with the new doctor who had just a few days ago performed the fifth procedure I’ve undergone within the past few months, I was in no mood for surprises, but unlike me, the day was young, fresh and just getting started.

I’ve been at this for a while, almost a year ...

I don’t want to alarm anyone — I’m alright now, but it was kind of touch-n-go there for a minute.

At the risk of violating my own HIPPA rights, let’s just say, I made a substantial down-payment on the proverbial farm at one point, but I guess it just wasn’t my time; doctors say I’ll make a full recovery and be back solid on both feet, stronger than ever in no time, give or take a month or two, barring anymore unexpected developments.

Without sounding too much like singer Alanis Morissette (“It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take. Who would’ve thought…It figures”…Ironic) there is something ironic in what I’ve noticed and personally experienced lately.

It probably started over a year ago when a good friend handed me a couple of good books to read, thinking they might help prepare me for a major task that he and I and a few other brave souls were about to tackle.

I may have mentioned either or both of the books before: “The Checklist Manifesto” by Atul Gawande and “Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty” by Karl E. Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe.

The first book details how the surprising power of the ordinary checklist can reduce avoidable failures in health care, government, the law, the financial industry and, as the book says, “in almost every realm of organized activity”.

Avoidable failures continue to plague us because, “the volume and complexity of knowledge today has exceeded our ability as individuals to properly deliver it to people consistently, correctly, safely”. The authors point out that, “We train longer, specialize more, use ever advancing technologies, and still we fail”.

Personally, I probably could have avoided at least some of the inconvenience of my own misery had I simply used some of the principles spelled out in the “Checklist”, not the least of which is to, in the midst of extreme complexity, don’t overlook the obvious.

I should have been taking better care of myself instead of putting off my own health while I focused on other issues. The other book, “Managing the Unexpected” seemed particularly timely the second time I read it while I spent nearly a month in the ICU trying and ultimately rescinding the pending farm deal.

Like the first, this book offers some pretty basic, but sage advice:

• Track small failures

• Resist oversimplification

• Be sensitive to operations

• Maintain the ability to be resilient

• Take advantage of expertise

Most of us never expect to get sick, or be struck by tragedy and as a result, are not ready when it actually happens. Not even the best health or homeowners insurance in the world can prepare us for what could happen.

As Superstorm Sandy, the looming so-called Financial Cliff, and the expansion of much needed health care benefits to at least some of the millions who currently have none will each demonstrate in their own ways; neither long-term climate forecasts, dire financial projections, nor the most sophisticated early warning systems available will do anything to avert a crisis if the warnings are not heeded and appropriate actions are not taken to avoid or mitigate the damages.

These are simple principles, not rocket science; they’re applicable to all kinds of organizational structures, including especially, local government as well as to individuals, myself included.

For me, I can say for sure: lesson learned.

For others, might I suggest a couple good books?

Contact Bill at