Saturday Feb 28, 2009

Never Waste a Really Good Crisis

Huge article in the NY Times about the financial crisis. It's called The Big Fix, by David Leonhardt. Really nice bit of perspective and history and a great read. But what keeps jumping out at me is one quote that puts things into an interesting context:

"TWO WEEKS AFTER THE ELECTION, Rahm Emanuel, Obama`s chief of staff, appeared before an audience of business executives and laid out an idea that Lawrence H. Summers, Obama’s top economic adviser, later described to me as Rahm’s Doctrine. 'You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,' Emanuel said. `What I mean by that is that it's an opportunity to do things you could not do before.'"

That's absolutely true. Even a quick flip through history demonstrates this concept quite clearly and it cuts right across a variety of societies. The leaders of countries (the smart leaders, anyway) tend to use a serious crises to change policy significantly and usually in ways that, in retrospect, represent an obvious paradigm change. In other words, big changes that are only realized later. I'd feel better about it if the power elite suffered the same consequences of these paradigm shifts as the rest of us, but that's not how the world works. I get that. Also eerie about Emanuel's comment is just how much it reminds me of Naomi Klein's latest book, Shock: Disaster Capitalism, in which she documents leaders manipulating events, shocking their populations, and changing policies radically (and generally to the detriment of the people). This phenomenon is not new, and it's not used exclusively by leaders of so-called capitalistic societies. Noam Chomsky has talked about the concept for years, especially and most recently with respect to how governments around the world used 911 to clamp down and reduce freedoms if those tendencies were present in the first place. The crisis was their opportunity. And they didn't waste it. Now, in the quote above, Rahm is obviously talking about fixing things, but the process is the same as wrecking things: you do it using a crisis.

So, if the power dudes view a good crisis as an opportunity never to be wasted, why don't we feel the same way and do the same thing? It's certainly a different way of thinking, but it can be liberating if you look ahead and actively jump paradigms on your own terms instead of holding on to the past as it crumples under your feet because others are acting in their own interests. This is a good lesson for project management as well. The life cycle of any great project snakes around like a river running wild, so it pays to step back occasionally and plan for those times when things break badly. They are opportunities "to do things you could not do before." Take advantage of them.

And finally, here's Rahm's crisis video at the Wall Street Journal.

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