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Commentary

Don't Use Task's Enormity as an Excuse to Do Nothing

School Violence: Crisis-prepared cultures see the big picture but take smaller, specific steps to address the problem.

May 23, 1999|IAN I. MITROFF | Ian I. Mitroff is a professor in the Marshall School of Business at USC and the former director of USC's Center for Crisis Management

Tragically, the recent epidemic of school shootings follows the same general pattern of public and expert reaction that is found in virtually all major crises. If we could better understand and accept this pattern, we could take more appropriate actions to lower the potential for future tragedies.

First of all, there is never a single factor that is solely responsible for any crisis. Not only is there more than enough blame to go around, but the very act of blaming is itself a substantial contributing factor to the crisis.

Second, it is not possible to measure the exact contribution of any single factor in a given crisis. This lack of precise determination is a major contributing factor to a crisis. Taking for example the crisis we now face regarding school violence, a 30-year stream of research in the social sciences has shown rather convincingly that the repeated exposure of children to violent TV shows and films is correlated positively with the increased aggressiveness of children. However, by itself the exposure to violent material does not cause real world violence.

Nonetheless, the correlations are not zero, which if they were would indicate no relationship. Instead, they are typically in the range of 0.3 to 0.5. Thus, while we cannot say that simulated violence causes real world violence, it is a contributing factor. Ignoring this fact only exacerbates the problem by having us believe that there is nothing effective that we can do.

Third, we have constructed, both intentionally and unintentionally, a complex society that makes it virtually impossible to determine how much each factor contributes exactly to school violence. We don't even know the number of factors, since they are continually changing and new factors come into play daily. If we insist upon exact knowledge before we act, this is nothing but a convenient ploy for never doing anything. It is also an excuse for each contributing factor to wiggle its way out of assuming its fair portion of responsibility. Each can argue--as for example Hollywood has recently--that other factors are more responsible than we are for the tragedies or that we are merely a convenient whipping-boy, etc.

Fourth, the system has properties that none of the separate parts do, and the interactions between the factors are just as important--often more important--than their independent properties. For example, from the standpoint of the whole system, it is easy to see that we have constructed one that amplifies violence. All of the factors reinforce one another so that the case is far worse than if merely one or two of them existed separately. The exact contribution of each of the separate elements is irrelevant. Taking again the example of school violence, it is easy to see that in a society with 220 million guns--plus or minus 20 million--all that counts is the large available pool of guns, which almost ensures their easy accessibility to all. Does it matter that a child is killed with a gun that was obtained from a criminal or a law-abiding citizen?

From my experience in studying crises of all kinds in both the public and private sectors, I have learned that the organizations best prepared for a crisis do not waste time and resources trying to determine the exact contribution of any particular factor. Once they have identified a factor as a potential contributor--which means they are willing to settle for rough, approximate measures--they ask what they can do to attack the factor as aggressively as they can given their available resources.

In short, responsible organizations act as if they were faced with heart disease. Can one imagine the hue and cry, if as a society, we said that the fact that no one factor is solely responsible for heart disease means that we can not take action?

Throughout the Littleton, Colo., and other such tragedies, we have been constantly reminded that the problem is complex, that we need to understand all the factors and how they interact before we take action. That's true. But we can apply what we have learned about crisis management to the current mess we face.

And if crisis management has one central lesson to teach, it is that the general culture of an organization or society--the major, taken-for-granted background assumptions--are the keys to whether it acts aggressively or not. Crisis-prone cultures are full of rationalizations, denial and blame. Crisis-prepared cultures not only see the big picture--the whole system--but they attempt to do the best they can regarding all the factors individually or together. They do not use the enormity of the task as an excuse for evading their moral responsibility to do what is humanly possible.

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