Tigers and Ducks
By Tony Kern, Ed.D
Chief Executive Officer, Convergent Performance
A U.S. Navy pilot once wrote, “In aviation you very rarely get your head bitten off by a tiger – you usually get nibbled to death by ducks.” What he meant was that most accidents and incidents are the end game of a series of interrelated events, interpretations, decisions, warnings or actions that are allowed to progress without recognition or intervention. The final trigger decision, action (or inaction) may be relatively innocuous, but sufficient in itself to totally remove a margin of safety previously eroded by other events. So it is in life, where we allow the detritus of sloppy attention to detail and average performance to pile up, unaware that the next straw may be the back breaker, or that a tiger lurks nearby ready to pounce on our unpreparedness.
It is important to remember that even in a risk world populated mostly with annoying ducks, head-biting tigers still exist. Such was the case of Hurricane Sandy, a once-in-a-century storm that recently slammed the Northeastern United States. In the aftermath, we see differences in those who anticipated the unthinkable, prepared for the unknowable, who gracefully recovered from the unprecedented – and those who did not. We also see stark differences in the ability of individuals, companies, local governments and federal agencies to adapt and learn from the devastation. Now that the tiger is gone, we can see who was taking care of their ducks.
Luck is not evidence of wisdom
For the vast majority of us, Sandy’s devastation was inconsequential, merely something that happened elsewhere. But it reminds us that when it comes to readiness, we have real choices to make. We can diligently prepare for the tiger’s reappearance, or cross our fingers and hope that he doesn’t come back for us. Hope is not a strategy and luck is not evidence of wisdom or judgment. Uncertainty lurks in every aspect of our operations, and proactive preparation is the earmark of those we see successfully emerging from Sandy’s wrath.
In my book, Blue Threat: Why to Err is Inhuman (Pygmy Books, 2009), I have a list of insights called the “Blue Threat Proverbs.” Proverb 16 states that “Every post game is a pre game.” The ability to learn and improve following loss is the mark of a future winner. Recovery is SO much more than “returning to normal.” Ironically, recovery is also something that is prepared for in advance. A solid safety management system and disaster recovery plan will guide near and long-term actions when the tiger bites.
If you choose to reject this approach, I ask only that you make it a conscious choice – and here is the choice clearly spelled out. If you choose to decline to prepare, you are agreeing to endure the pain of regret should your future avoidable errors lead to unwanted consequences or tragedy.
That choice is yours. The reason I want to force this decision is that in today’s fast paced business world, far too many choices get made by our indecision. Here is another way of looking at it. If you are not mindful of the dangers posed by both the ducks and the tigers, you can reach a point where you have made unintentional but vitally important choices without thinking, without reflection, without planning and with no way to reset the chess board. In the aftermath of an unwelcome event, you can end up in an irrecoverable and irreversible situation you never imagined could happen to you. It might be the one you deserve, but not the one you intended. Or, you have the opportunity to choose a different path. If you want to get ready for the next tiger, get your ducks in a row now.
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