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Near Misses: Donald Trump, NASA and the 7 July Bombings

Donald Trump has been roundly criticised for his most recent comments downplaying the severity of Covid-19.  It appears that he has inferred from the fact that he appears to have had a mild form of the disease (although he is not out of the woods yet) that all Covid-19 infections are mild and there is really nothing to worry about.  Whilst the swagger and bombast is pure Trump; this growth in confidence following near misses and minor incidents is actually very widespread.

Somebody may have spotted it previously but, as far as I am aware, the first widespread discussion of this phenomenon was in Diane Vaughan’s analysis of the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster.  Speaking to technical staff at NASA following the crash, she made the peculiar finding that the more aware engineers were of previous near misses with the solid-fuel boosters on the space shuttle, the more confident they were in the safety of the spacecraft!

In the intervening years, many similar examples have emerged.  I particularly remember the experience of discussing business continuity with organisations in London in the months following the 7 July bombings in 2005.  Where one might have expected them to have been more concerned with protecting their organisations following the attack; many, perhaps the majority, took the opposite view that they had ‘survived’ a major terrorist incident so they were clearly well prepared.  Looking ahead to the end of the Covid-19 pandemic, whenever that may be, will firms have a renewed focus on resilience or will they take the survival of their business as evidence that they are resilient enough already?

As we said in yesterday’s blog about High Reliability Organisations, it is important to view every near miss and minor incident as a warning of potentially more serious problems and a valuable learning opportunity.