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Arational decision stages: the breakdown of rationality in strategic planning and implementation.


Decision making is the science of choosing the best alternative. The problem with classical normative decision models lies in intractable constraints, particularly a lack of time, staff, and resources for search, evaluation, and selection of alternatives (Abelson and Levi, 1985; Bazerman, 2005). Normative theorists argue decision making during natural disasters should be more rational due to fewer constraints--immense government resources, foreseeable problems, and highly motivated decision-makers fearing for their jobs (McCarthy, 2003). Common steps in the decision making processes in crisis situations include: preparation, needs analysis, search for alternatives, evaluating alternatives, authorization, and selection, communication and implementation, explanation and justification, and finally, retrospective evaluation (Dennis, 1995; Eisenhardt and Bourgeois, 1989; Turner, 1978). Descriptive theorists warn that high uncertainty can either constrain rational processes, or even undermine them to the point they become irrelevant (Bazerman, 2005; Heracleous, 1994, Quarantelli, 1988; Rosenthal, 1998). Combining moderating constraints with likely arational mediating factors yields Figure 1:


1. Preparation consists of contingency planning followed by simulations and stockpiling, both of resources and redundant systems (Quarantelli, 1988; Turner, 1978). Effective response to a widespread disaster requires an interdependent, inter-organizational effort between the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the National Guard, the Department of Defense, and a host of state and local agencies. Senate and Congressional committees investigating the Hurricane Katrina disaster both concluded that this catastrophe was both predicted and predictable (Gelbspan, 2005; Marek, 2006b). In New Orleans there were three areas of preparation, all requiring significant resources: (1) the levy system designed to prevent flooding, (2) FEMA equipment, supplies, and resources stockpiled for relief efforts, and (3) disaster planning and simulation exercises to coordinate relief efforts following the disaster. Unfortunately, political patronage undermined preparation efforts by shifting resource allocation elsewhere. The levee system was never designed to withstand anything more than a weak hurricane and Washington repeatedly refused to allocate the resources necessary for upgrades (Brinkley, 2006; Gelbspan, 2005). Similarly, FEMA's pitiful performance is not surprising, given its chronic underfunding and understaffing as resources were shifted away towards homeland security issues. FEMA never received funding to be prepared for anything more than minor disasters (Marek, 2006b; Singer, 2006).

2. Needs analysis ensures the most important problems are being addressed. Usually expert panels identify critical issues, verify feedback and information, and maximize objectivity and quality (Bazerman, 2005; Rosenthal, 1998). Needs analysis should result in a decision process cycle which continues until either reaching the objective or discounting the need for the objective (Ableson and Levi, 1985; Harrison, 1999). Obviously in a disaster scenario, there is neither the time nor the information for an optimal needs analysis. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, however, needs analysis opportunities were needlessly squandered. In Congressional testimony, FEMA officials blamed response problems on poor coordination and communication, particularly conflicting and contradictory reports on the extent of the disaster and who needed help (Marek, 2006a; Singer, 2006). Here the lack of adequate preparation in terms of communications equipment and redundant communications channels cost relief efforts dearly. In some cases, communications were so delayed and flawed that DHS decision makers relied on media reports, such as when DHS leaders confused reports of the convention center with the Superdome until media documented the deplorable conditions at the center (Brinkley, 2006).

However, beyond preparation lies decision premises--the paradigm and ideologies to sort through information determine what is worth paying attention to and what can be safely marginalized or ignored (Simon, 1957). Decision premises are often distorted by (a) previous commitments to past choices, and tendencies to escalate that commitment, (b) avoidance of negative information and the defense of prior choices, (c) illusions of control over random and uncontrollable events, and (d) wishful thinking, where unpleasant contingencies are arbitrarily dismissed as improbable, while pleasant contingencies are unrealistically embraced as likely (Abelson and Levi, 1985; Bazerman, 2005). In Katrina, decision makers often embraced dangerously faulty decision premises. On the local level, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin portrayed a cowboy mentality of "this is just another storm to ride out" upon hearing news of the impending hurricane Further, crony "Big Easy" contractors delivered levees of such poor quality they have been accused of malfeasance (Brinkley, 2006). Similarly, levee district funds were diverted away from inspectors and maintenance in favor of casinos, airports, and Mardi Gras statues (Marek, 2006b). The trick is to rationalize the need and tweak the criteria used to define that need until political objectives fit the standard. On the federal level, the Senate Committee condemned DHS's reliance on unverified media reports as the basis for relief decisions. The media gravitated towards news of the spectacular, resulting in accounts of violence, looting, and other anarchy that were often exaggerated (Brinkley, 2006; Marek 2006b).

3. Search for alternatives involves scanning the internal organization and external environment for information on relevant alternatives which are likely to fulfill the objectives settled upon in the needs analysis. Searches are bounded by (a) the perceived importance of the decision, (b) the cost of additional information, (c) the linkage between the decision and the decision maker's level of aspiration, and (d) the desirability of the outcome (Harrison, 1999; Taylor, 1984). On the federal, state, and local levels, most agencies had extensive contingency plans with a variety of disaster alternatives (Cillufo, 2006; Brinkley, 2006). Unfortunately, the planning did not extend to effective implementation. Congressional investigations concluded that FEMA decision makers understood internal FEMA roles and responsibilities, but not how to effectively collaborate with other agencies, even when they were formally written into the plan (Brinkley, 2006). Consequently alternatives involving other agencies, such as Amtrack and the Department of the Interior, were neglected (Brinkley, 2006; Marek, 2006a). FEMA was geared towards alternatives involving FEMA personnel using FEMA vehicles following FEMA procedures, and had difficulty understanding how to effectively integrate alternatives outside of that scope of operations. As is often the case in crisis, the systems of systems coordination and communication network broke down (Quarantelli, 1988).

Chronic resource allocation shortfalls undermining disaster preparation and contingency plans in favor of other priorities were present on every level of disaster mediation. Beyond FEMA's problems, on the federal level, Senate Hearings concluded that the wording of the plan was so obtuse, confusing, and complex, many DHS decision makers did not understand it (Marek, 2006a). Instead of improving and testing federal state and local plans, they sat on the shelf as a token gesture reassuring the public that preparations had been made. Further, Louisiana's plan was not comprehensive, with detailed contingencies for those with vehicles, but not for the infirm with age, health, or mental problems (Marek 2006b). While the City of New Orleans did have a detailed disaster plan, the mayor's office had not widely shared it, so it did not matter (Brinkley, 2006). Priorities focused elsewhere, making contingency planning more of a ceremonial or ritual exercise than reliable preparation.

4. Evaluation of alternatives involves an assessment of potential to reach the decision objective. Using formal criteria based on expert advice and forecasts of feasibility and informal criteria such as decision maker preferences, the likelihood of cause and effect relations of success is assessed (Harrison, 1999). Evaluation usually continues in cycles, with each cycle including more information and detail allowing for better evaluation. The number of cycles usually corresponds with the perceived importance of the decision and the quality of the evaluation (Abelson and Levi, 1985; Mintzberg, Raisinghani, and Thoret, 1976). Any forecasting process is only as good as the quality of information and communication which provided the data. In post-disaster chaos, the failure of formal channels prompted decision makers to rely on informal or public channels, which provided unverified information of dubious quality. Informal processes tend to focus on simplistic information and alternatives that are easy to understand, on alternatives that reflect what power-holders and influence leaders want to hear, and on alternatives that are compatible with preferred political agendas (Bazerman, 2005; Harrison, 1999; Taylor, 1984).

Senate fact finders have concluded that most of the attention of certain key decision makers focused on office and inter-office politics (Marek 2006b). On the federal level, FEMA director Brown and DHS Secretary Chertoff began a series of miscommunications that culminated with Brown ignoring Chertoff and communicating directly with the White House instead. Insiders note that Brown's ouster from FEMA was officially attributed to incompetence, but unofficially attributed to Brown's failure to talk his boss up with the media and with other government contacts and publicly credit Chertoff with any successes in the relief effort (Singer, 2006). On the state level, there was bad blood between Mayor Nagin and Governor Blanco, with mistrust and miscommunication contributing to an agonizingly slow and indecisive decision making process in the Governor's suite. Instead of mobilizing the Louisiana National Guard to maintain order, Blanco spent days engaged in partisan bickering and finger pointing (Brinkley, 2006). When the focus of evaluation is on issues of personal exposure and culpability for mistakes, then a conservative bias towards risk-taking sets in. For example, in the days preceding the Hurricane, some decision makers in New Orleans attempted to round up the city's fleet of school buses and use them as evacuation vehicles, but no one was willing to accept responsibility for the insurance issues and fuel costs (Brinkley, 2006).

5. Choice selection strives to accurately weigh alternatives and rank them (Harrison, 1999; Robbins and DeCenzo, 2005). This works only when the alternatives are likely to result in positive outcomes. When the alternatives are unlikely to make a difference, or worse yet, may even cause more problems, selecting an alternative is often perceived as worse than avoiding the decision entirely and doing nothing (Harrison, 1999; Kaufmann, 1973; Quarantelli, 1988). The key moderator of effective selection is the competence and experience of the decision maker (Bazerman, 2005; Harrison, 1999), and here the process broke down. DHS was only recently created and had never managed a major catastrophe before, putting its personnel at the bottom of the experience curve. FEMA had managed disasters in the past, but not with most of its current employees. Many experienced personnel had left and 500 positions had not been replaced, including key decision makers at all levels (Marek, 2006a; Singer, 2006). FEMA Head Michael D. Brown was conspicuously unqualified for the job (Stearns and Borenstein, 2005). Congressional investigations noted that Hurricane Katrina was the first real test of the National Response Plan, which Vice President Dick Cheney's office described as "a very detailed, acronym-heavy document ... not easily accessible to the first-time user" (Marek, 2006b). Examining Chertoff's decisions, it is unclear whether the DHS Secretary even understood the plan. For example, when he made the FEMA Director his top official directing relief efforts, he did not realize the Brown was unqualified, lacking the training necessary to be eligible for that position (Marek, 2006b).

Beyond expertise lies the engagement of the political appointees who lack professional expertise (Marek, 2006a). Political operatives primarily interested in visibility and impression management issues are not up to handing post-disaster chaos that would have challenged experts. The Congressional report summarized the decision making in this crisis to be a "litany of mistakes, misjudgments, lapses, and absurdities" (Marek, 2006a). Completely overwhelmed, chaos, changes the decision dynamic, as the worst case scenario becomes the probable outcome. Here decisions are unlikely to resolve problems, and decision outcomes may negatively impact the decision maker. The act of decision making becomes, in and of itself, a risky activity (Abelson and Levi, 1985; Harrison, 1999). This natural risk aversion and desire to deflect responsibility, coupled with inexperience and incompetence, created an atmosphere of indecision that fueled confusion. No one knew who was in charge of what and who had authority to make decisions, allowing decision makers to make the convenient assumptions that someone else was handling certain problems (Brinkley, 2006; Marek, 2006a).

6. Implementation involves operationalizing general goals into specific initiatives and programs (Harrison, 1999). Whatever the plan, it will not cross the decision makers "action threshold" if it is perceived as irrelevant or trivial (Abelson and Levi, 1985). The moderators of any relief initiative in post-catastrophe conditions are enormous--the destruction of infrastructure limits access, logistical support, and often communication as well. Resources are often destroyed or inaccessible, and conditions of chaos pose security issues (Quarantelli, 1988). Even when infrastructure and communication networks are intact, implementation is delayed when responders do not understand each other and the game plan that should be followed (Cilluffo, 2006; Rosenthal, 1998). Further, the effectiveness of the implementation is mediated by a fundamental decision maker choice - professionalism versus politics. The professional option is to make the best of a bad situation, to continue to fight the good fight, to do the best one can, and trust that, in the end, commitment, dedication and hard work will be recognized and rewarded. FEMA Director Brown states that he followed this philosophy and ended up publicly crucified and dismissed from his position (Singer, 2006). In contrast, the political, arational option is to shift attention from effectively managing the disaster and making decisions towards effectively managing personal image and deflect blame. DHS Secretary Chertoff seemed primarily concerned with media exposure for any relief effort successes. Governor Blanco's slow decision making stemmed, in part, from a flurry of activity attempting to divert blame for underpreparation and poor execution away from the state toward federal and local levels (Brinkley, 2006; Singer, 2006).

The Congressional report on the response to Hurricane Katrine is entitled "A Failure of Initiative." This captures the key dynamic of underprepared, largely untrained, inexperienced decision-makers handling a catastrophe way out of their league. Researchers note that decision makers tend to prefer familiar initiatives only incrementally different from standard operating procedure over more radical plans, even when radical action is called for (Taylor, 1984). In effect, the height of the action threshold increases with the degree of unfamiliarity associated with the initiative. This certainly was the mindset at FEMA, where decision makers embraced what they knew and ignored all the rest, developing a silo / chimney mentality that undermined effective collaboration across agencies. For example, FEMA followed the rules to the letter, seldom demonstrating flexibility and initiative. Early after the storm, FEMA suspended rescue efforts immediately following the storm because of exaggerated media accounts of looting and other security problems. The rules said that if rescuers could be threatened, they should be accompanied by armed law enforcement (Brinkley, 2006). Once FEMA decided to wait for law enforcement, DHS and the Department of Justice began a turf war disputing who was in charge of sending backup to the New Orleans Police Department since the federal plan gave both agencies authority. Their leaders were playing politics, and this dispute prevented the influx of large numbers of federal law enforcement officers for four days (Marek, 2006b).

7. Evaluation is designed to ensure that the decision process results in a desired outcome, as defined by the goals and objectives set in the needs analysis process. Evaluation should either result in (a) a secondary set of goals and objectives designed to further move the organization towards the specified outcomes, or (b) the discounting of the previous set of desired goals and outcomes in favor of a new needs analysis process (Harrison, 1999). Evaluation of the Katrina disaster was limited by aggressive political moves by the Republican politicians to protect the administration. First, President Bush refused to release relevant documents or emails and also prohibited senior officials from testifying under the rubric of executive privilege (Schuster, 2006). Then a Democratic proposal for an independent council to investigate the matter was killed by votes which fell along party lines. Instead, the Senate and the House launched separate investigations whose agenda and report would be controlled by a Republican majority (Hearn and O'Connor, 2005). Beyond the obvious calls for better planning, communication, and collaboration, the findings called for streamlined approval processes and for Department of Defense command of relief efforts in "extraordinary circumstances" since the Navy and Coast Guard did the best job of providing relief in the catastrophe (Marek, 2006b). Predictably, both reports focused culpability primarily on the state and local governments and on a federal level scapegoat, ex-FEMA director Michael Brown.


Previously, most of the discussion of arational decision criteria has been negative, but this need not be the case. Depending upon decision maker personalities and preferences, arational criteria can be positive, even heroic. The question becomes, will the arational criteria focus on the mission of relief or on some other agenda? In Hurricane Katrina, decision makers displayed great variation across two continua: capability and expertise, and integrity. Combining these dimensions of decision making yields the following matrix of decision maker styles in Figure 2:


On the integrity side, organizational citizens and statesmen are decision makers who (a) have the capability and experience to mount an effective response, and (b) have the professionalism to pursue the altruistic, greater good, even if that requires the sacrifice of resources they would normally reserve. Personal ambitions and political agendas are systematically set aside to effectively cooperate with others in responding to this external threat. Department of Secretary Gale Norton filled this role, unselfishly providing a large variety of resources to FEMA which ignored them. In contrast, well connected figureheads are hired primarily because of their prestige and/or connections, not competence. The best of the breed hold on to the organizational mission and use what is left of their networks to rally resources and support to render effective aid. FEMA director Michael Brown filled this role as a political patronage appointee who did not know what he was doing, but did consistently try to fight the good fight even when that required compromising his career.

On the opportunistic side, dealmakers and entrepreneurs are black box decision makers who (a) have the capability and experience to mount an effective response, and (b) recognize the opportunities that external threat offers to extend and consolidate power and resources. Their expertise allows their efforts to be effective, but their ambition channels such efforts into arenas which offer personal or professional benefits post-crisis--call it "enlightened self-interest." They tend to emerge from the disaster better off than before, despite significant losses of personal assets. A former top executive at Cox Communications, Mayor Ray Nagin, fits the bill with his reputation as a smooth talking, sales and customer service guru whose grand sweeping visions and ambitious plans wooed voters. Nagin is bright, articulate, and somewhat deceptive, using unrealistic promises and media campaigns to shape public opinion in his favor (Levin, 2005). In contrast, clumsy political hacks are hired by political patronage channels, lack expertise, and serve to single-mindedly benefit their handlers. Their survival depends on (a) the extent their incompetence is linked with disastrous outcomes, (b) the extent to which they can deflect and divert negative outcomes to other actors, (c) the strength of their political networks, and (d) the importance of accountability in performance appraisal. Arguably, DHS Secretary Chertoff epitomizes this archetype. An almost fanatical supporter of the Bush administration, Chertoff won political patronage as a judge through unyielding arguments for unlimited executive powers without oversight. Having no qualifications in Homeland Security, Chertoff continued to cultivate his ignorance. Chertoff's comments indicated that he did not track the progress of the storm, he was unaware of the consistent warnings and dire predictions in FEMA reports concerning New Orlean's levees and flood protection, was unfamiliar with the DHS National Response Plan, and even refused to read email for updates (CNN News, 2005).

Beyond individual actors lie organizational dynamics. Even when lives are not the line, collaboration often breaks down when organizations have a well-established history of antagonistic interactions, and predispositions towards adversarial relationships instead of competition, particularly over resources (Churchman, 1982, Quarantelli, 1988). These considerations yield the following matrix of decision integration between organizations. Figure 3:


When the organizations effectively collaborate, they tend to avoid arational decision making. In conditions of resource abundance, they openly communicate, closely collaborate, and provide comprehensive, systematic relief. In conditions of resource scarcity, the communication and collaboration is there but the comprehensive coverage is not. Agonizing tradeoff decisions have to be made concerning which efforts will help the most victims and provide maximum relief. While targeted relief does cost lives and prolongs the suffering of some, as long as the criteria used to make such decisions are professional, fair, and transparent, they tend to win respect and approval - they did the best they could with what they had.

Within inter-organizational competition lies the black box. Given bad blood, organizations are constantly tempted to engage in dysfunctional, arational decision dynamics, such as upstaging or undermining rival organizations, or just acting independently and ignoring them. This competition undermines effective collaboration, and leave holes in the relief net that cost lives (Cilluffo, 2006). These problems are worsened in conditions of resource scarcity, where organizations may be tempted to compete for control of resources through brinksmanship (Dixit and Nalebuff, 1991). From this perspective, problems should be allowed to develop into genuine crises, giving decision makers greater leverage to demand key resources. As the adage notes, "the squeaky wheel gets the grease." But judgment of this black box must be qualified, because it, too, has its own silver lining. In conditions when those in charge are incompetent and their decisions are dysfunctionally slow and misguided, independent action may indeed be more effective than futile coordinated error. For example, the Navy and Coast Guard responded so effectively, one of the Congressional recommendations was to turn relief efforts of catastrophes over to their control because their decision making and implementation effectiveness was superior (Mareka, 2006b).


In decision making, when there is an information vacuum, arational data will be used to supplement rational data. When formal processes are inadequate, they will be supplemented with informal processes. This is entirely appropriate because when uncertainty rises to an unusual height, organizational actors tend to lose their rational response-ability, and often choose either (a) a "fight" response, characterized by an irrational a predisposition to action, anger, and aggression, (b) a "flight" response, characterized by equally irrational withdrawal, avoidance, and mental shutdown (Patterson, Grenny, McMillan and Switzler, 1996). Illusions of control become essential to rally the troops and provide a rationale for action. The question would be when the proportion of rational versus arational data becomes dysfunctional, and potentially misleading. In short, sometimes the black box is all one has and here are recommendations to deal with it successfully:

First, the amount of resources invested before a disaster in infrastructure, communication equipment, redundant communication channels, contingency planning, disaster simulations, etc. shapes effective coordination and cooperation of assets post-disaster. As resource constraints increase, the domain available for rational decision making will decrease and the amount of arational data used in decision processes will increase.

Second, given the inevitable failure of contingency plans to account for all eventualities in chaotic post-disaster situations, decisions are best made by highly trained, competent disaster managers in the field. To the extent that less qualified disaster managers make decisions from remote locations, (a) the misinterpretation of valid information will increase, (b) the misinterpretation of distorted and unreliable information will increase, and (c) different responder languages with different nomenclatures will increase miscommunications.

Third, given the uncertainties involved in decision making at a time of disaster, speed and flexibility are essential. If formal channels, structure, policies, procedures, approval processes, etc. enable effective improvisation, they will be used. If they are inertial and stifling, they will either be: (a) ignored and subverted by effective decision makers who are in touch with what is happening in the field and what is needed or (b) used to avoid making decisions and pass responsibility along to someone else. Expert witnesses testified that one of the lessons of Katrina was to decentralize and regionalize DHS and FEMA in favor of robust state disaster relief--move the decision making as close to the field as possible (Cilluffo, 2006).

Finally, when politicians feel that their reputation is threatened, their attention turns from the demands of the task at hand to image management, or in more colloquial terms, "CYA" [cover your ass]. Media should be encouraged to suspend evaluation and judgment of decision makers until after the crisis as ended. Otherwise, the media will create the dynamic they attack as politicians divert their attention from providing relief towards personal and political agendas to manage increasingly negative public impressions.


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Dr Robert A. Page, Jr. is a Professor of Management at Southern Connecticut State University. He received his Ph.D. in Organizational Theory from the University of California, Irvine. He serves as editor of the Journal of Business Management and Change, and as the Managing Editor of the Journal of International Business Disciplines. He has presented in a variety of conferences and published articles in a variety of academic journals on entrepreneurship, organizational theory, global business, and the scholarship of teaching and learning.

Shakil M. Rahman, MS, PhD, is a Professor of Management at Frostburg State University, Frostburg, MD. Shakil's areas of interest are: Small Business, Operations Management, Decision Support System, Quality Management, and Pedagogical issues. He is actively involved in research in above mentioned areas. Shakil has conducted a variety of workshops, presented various papers at a number of conferences, and published several papers in Proceedings and Journals. During last fourteen years, he has received a number of services and research grants. Also, he is an active member of several Professional Organizations. He has held a senior Production Management position in business prior to his PhD. Currently, he is CEO of "Internist Medical Group" located in Cumberland, MD. Shakil also offers consultancy services to local and regional businesses. His areas of consultancy are "Process Analysis & Design", "Facility Layout", "Productivity & Quality Improvement", "Resources Optimization", "Employee Training", and "Technology Selection & Utility for a Business".

Ahmad Tootoonchi, Ph. D. in Leadership and Human behavior, co-author of the book 101 Leadership Tips, President of the International Academy of Business Disciplines, and Chief Editor of the Journal of International Business Disciplines. He is a professor and Interim Dean of the College of Business at Frostburg State University. He has received three Outstanding Teaching Awards, and has published numerous articles in the field of Leadership and Organizational Behavior in referred journals. He has also conducted many workshops and seminars, and provided consulting services to Academic, Business and not-for-profit organizations.
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Author:Page, Robert A., Jr.; Tootoonchi, Ahmad; Rahman, Shakil
Publication:Advances in Competitiveness Research
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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