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Crisis Response Journal Crisis Response Journal

Searching for ground truth

Posted on 26th November 2016 at 15:18pm

Brian Dillon says that crises present a growing theme of either information vacuum or a surplus of data that render clarity impossible. To find the ground truth, one has to go outside of one's personal or organisational comfort zone.

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Donald Trump’s success in the US Presidential Election caught many by surprise, particularly the media and political class of America's north east and west coast. But who can blame them for thinking that Hillary Clinton would succeed? Most opinion polls predicted her victory and the airwaves were awash with supposedly informed pundits who felt that her triumph was a foregone conclusion. Yet they were wrong. Spectacularly so.

I read an article after the election from a DC-based British journalist who wrote that if, in his circle, he had advanced the notion that Trump would succeed he'd have been laughed out of town, such was the confidence that Clinton would win.

In a sense the US experience was a refrain of Britain’s EU referendum result: the perceived wisdom of London-based politicos and journalists was that the Remain camp would prevail. The public, of course, had other ideas. Clearly then there’s no room for smugness this side of the Atlantic.

But looking at all of this through the lens of crisis management, what lessons can be drawn from these situations where the supposed experts were out of touch with reality?

Most executives recognise the need in a crisis to understand the detail that has caused the critical incident. In some cases, this causes the Chief Executive or similar to get to the centre of the disaster or present themselves before the media. It certainly makes good reporting to see executives with their sleeves rolled up, albeit this hands-on approach may not necessarily solve the crisis and can have a detrimental effect on an organisation's reputation. In any event such actions aren't solely about public relations but rather borne from a desire to simply find out what is going on.

They are seeking the alluring, indispensable and all too often elusive ‘ground truth’ – the unadulterated, frequently chaotic, but essential realities of the situation. A recurring theme of crises is that for senior executives or managers is there’s an information vacuum, or conversely a surplus of data that renders clarity impossible; these are different situations, but both equally frustrating. In either case, obtaining ground truth becomes a difficult and time-consuming process. Perhaps the elixir lies in obtaining ground truth before an event, because all too often a crisis develops due to a lack of focus on an emerging and smouldering situation which, with foresight, could have been predicted and averted.  

In the case of the Presidential election this means that while it made sense for those in the north east and west to think their expected outcomes were correct, with ample reassuring peer group support, they were wrong because they lacked the ground truth of life beyond their reach.

The same thing can happen in organisations, perhaps even more easily. Globalisation has increased the market presence of many corporates, yet despite strides in communication, reporting lines remain challenged by reach, geographical and at times cultural boundaries.

The transformational change bug that has gripped many organisations compounds this; typically this means fewer people doing more, and despite the soothsayers’ claims, gaps in management are not always bridged. To compensate and make the workload manageable, performance frameworks frequently provide neat packages of quantitative data. An environment that is disconnected from ground truth creates a false sense of confidence. How can the facts from the frontline be identified and the bureaucracy of data scythed through to reveal the underlying operational realities?

General Patton reportedly once said: "If everyone is thinking alike then someone isn't thinking." This has relevance in all organisations. The key, as in so many areas of management, is culture and communication. Alternative views and challenges to the orthodox understanding of accepted positions are healthy and should be encouraged. This means an atmosphere in which debriefing has a purpose and candid feedback is sought in a culture that values collective success and constructive criticism above defending personal or departmental power.

In terms of performance there is a place for number crunching, but not at the expense of qualitative information drawn from people who know the detail – workers, clients and stakeholders. Obtaining this level of information is hard work. It means going outside the normal safe operating bubble of like-minded people and, if we’re honest, visiting places or people we’d rather avoid because their experiences and views present challenges that we might not like or be able address.

Yet it is this type of activity that reveals ground truth; its complexities, contradictions and at times strikingly obvious conclusions. 

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