Sunday, March 16, 2008

Michael Brydon: Is it too late?

There are some in Penticton who believe that City Council and the Board of School District 67 are making a serious error by demolishing the former Pen-Hi gym and auditorium to make room for a parking lot. I formally joined a group opposed to the city and school board's plan relatively late (early 2007) but I am assured that opposition to the plan has existed since it was first proposed. Various dissenting groups have formed and recently, the dissenters have been re-energized by the support of some high profile, trusted members of the community. These newcomers have brought not only additional credibility and political clout, but also new knowledge, ideas, and fresh insights into why the former Pen-Hi gym and auditorium should not be destroyed.

Unfortunately, a common theme in the responses from those in power (and also in newspaper editorials) has been that the decision to destroy the buildings has already been made. Defenders of the decision ask where we were two or three or four years ago. Superficially, it seems like a reasonable question. However, this is precisely the same closed-mindedness we uncover when we examine recent history's most spectacular decision making failures. For example, dissent within John F. Kennedy's cabinet was suppressed in the weeks leading up to the Bay of Pigs invasion in April of 1961 even though there was much evidence that the invasion plan was inherently flawed and that conditions in Cuba were substantially different from those assumed during the initial planning stages. The Bay of Pigs invasion was an unqualified disaster and Kennedy realized that the root cause was a systemic flaw in the decision making process. The remainder of Kennedy's administration—which was characterized by some notable decision making successes, including a measured response to the Cuban Missile Crisis—was dedicated to rooting out false consensus and groupthink. JFK went as far as designating his brother, Robert, as an ongoing “devil's advocate” within cabinet. The Challenger Space Shuttle disaster provides another example in which last-minute dissent was suppressed by a “the decision has already been made” mentality. In this case the decision was to launch the shuttle even though several junior engineers expressed doubts about the impact of colder-than-normal launch conditions on critical O-rings. Subsequent inquiries identified systemic decision making flaws, not O-rings, as the root cause of the disaster.

Obviously, these examples are on a much larger and more tragic scale than the fate of a few buildings. But the Bay of Pigs and the Challenger disaster lessons have become an important part of the curriculum in many engineering and business schools. The stories are used to teach professional decision makers to value flexibility, to seek disconfirming information regardless of its source, and to delay committing to a course of action until absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, several prominent decision makers in Penticton either have not learned these lessons or have dismissed them as inconvenient. Private citizens of this community have taken the time to do some of the homework and due diligence that the city and school board seem unwilling to do (some of this is documented here). However, upon presenting new evidence to these decision makers, we are told that we are “willfully ignorant”, we are called “interlopers” and asked how we could have the “temerity” to question their judgment. In short, there is much name-calling, but little new evidence or rebuttal. This type of response is so at odds with contemporary decision making practice that I cannot help but think that we in Penticton are headed for our own decision making fiasco.

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