Analytics and Forecasting

The Flood: An Account

7 Dec 2012  

I was nearly killed during the drafting of this post.  I hope that some of you out there in Blogland will benefit from my experience.

Part I:  Organic Intelligence

West Greenwich Village, New York City—Monday October 29, 2012 4:00pm ET.  As I draft this, I’m in the middle of readying our downtown, Hudson River-fronting New York apartment for Hurricane Sandy, which by most accounts could be the biggest storm here in, well, recorded history.  Big enough that it could bring over ten feet of storm surge onto our street—and into our duplex apartment, the lower floor of which is partly below ground.

What goes through my mind?  I have to prepare to:  (1) make sure I physically survive (my wife is safely out of town, and my kids are both grown men living in safer places), (2) make sure our cats survive, and (3) make sure our most-prized possessions are out of harm’s way to the extent possible. This is the value hierarchy that guides my actions, sometimes coming down to would I rather save this (camera equipment) or that (books).

How fast do I need to prepare?  That depends on many factors—how fast the storm is moving, when and where it will hit land, how it coincides with tides and the moon cycles, its barometric pressure (which is historically low, lower pressure tending to create a semi-vacuum that essentially sucks the water upwards)…lots of factor all changing at once, and all interacting with each other rapidly and unpredictably.

Kind of like real life in the business world.  While I could be chastised for remaking everything into a metaphor for organizational intelligence, in fact that’s the way I most often view the world.

My intelligence stew

I take in lots of information—ranging from satellite photos being streamed on the Internet, to hallway conversations with building neighbors, and everything in between.  My ‘life partner’ Ellen, though back in Atlanta taking care of her mother, is emailing and calling our neighbors to see what they have heard and what they are doing about it.  It’s all a very kinetic, intuitive, non-deliberate process.  I’m ‘playing by sense of smell’.

I weave it all into a story, a real-time dynamic picture of my situation going forward.  Its choices and payoff tables are very organic, given the ‘value proposition’ I mentioned above.  While not (yet) life-and-death, it’s maybe one rung down on that ladder.

It’s more than a picture, it’s a model of how the various causal factors could interact—many of which I can only monitor and react to, but over which I have little control.  For example, it is rumored that Con Edison has decided to preemptively turn off the power—which so far has not happened, but I’m keeping my batteries charged just in case.

I consider all factors within my sphere of awareness. The most obvious of these, direct observation, is too often overlooked.  I just got in from visiting the river across the street, and am encouraged that now (just after low tide), the river is significantly lower, and not nearly as angry-looking, as it was at high tide this morning.  The wind is picking up, though, and it’s raining moderately.

High tide tonight at 9pm will be the real test, when the full moon will magnify the tide, and the storm is predicted to hit land (though farther south of here.)

Can I predict the future?

Pretend for a minute that during my travails I was miraculously visited by a Man From A Century Ago, whom we’ll call him Mfaca.  Mfaca would look at my decision process and work flow and conclude that I could predict the future.  I seem to have a really accurate idea of approximately what is going to happen, and approximately when it’s going to happen.

Of course, I haven’t predicted the future.  I believe that, in its truest sense the word, that is permanently outside the realm of human capabilities. What I have done, though, is to expand my awareness of the present by using tools that Mfaca would not understand.  I (and the people with whom I speak) rely a lot on TV and the Internet.  The people reporting on these media are using satellites, radar, and advanced complex modeling.  My awareness is expanded by these five technologies that did not exist a century ago, and that enable me, if not to predict THE future, to deeply assess the present to in effect predict MY future in terms of how I’ll spend the coming hours, days, and weeks.

Does my decision-making follow a structured process as described by the Knowledge Value Chain® model?  Not exactly.  It’s more like: I get some information, I do some things— like move the most valuable items—I wait and see.  My process oscillates seamlessly and rapidly between Decision and Action.

I tune my intelligence mix

Update 6:30pm. I’ve just returned from another visit to the river. The tide has now begun to rise and the water has already breached the wall that usually contains it by a wide margin.  I hear ‘by wire’ that Sandy has just reached land somewhere in New Jersey.  So I may have to stop writing and go back into Action mode at any minute.


Hudson River - October 29, 2012 6pm

It’s now time to engage the short-term, narrow-focus, real-time systems only human intelligence can provide.  I’ve asked my good neighbor—whose floor is almost a foot lower than ours—to serve as an early warning system.  The last time this happened (last year with Hurricane Irene), he got flooded first, then we did.  Not only is my neighbor my early warning system, he’s also my front line of defense—since he has installed four powerful sump pumps since last year’s disaster.

And now for the inevitable ‘word from our sponsor.’  What I’m doing to prepare for Hurricane Sandy is analogous to what organizations should be doing to monitor and prepare for the inevitable disruptions and discontinuities of modern business life.  That is, creating and fostering a value-driven, real-time, multi-source, integrative process in which Intelligence, Decision, and Action blend seamlessly to support how the organization creates, protects, and grows Value.

Part II:  After the Deluge

October 31, 2012. Though just 48 hours have passed since I wrote the words above, already they seem like missives from another lifetime.  I have slept only a few hours in the interim, and now feels like the first time I can relax even a little.

On the evening of October 29, 2012 New York City was hit by hurricane Sandy, a sprawling, slow-moving quirky storm that caused mass devastation along the eastern US, killing over 125 people.  I came close to being one of them.

Bank and West Streets, NYC Under Five Feet of Water - October 29, 2012 9pm ET

Bank and West Streets Under Five Feet of Water - October 29, 2012 9pm

My decision process stands as a textbook micro-manifestation of the foibles of an intelligence process. On several occasions in years previous, we had been warned of huge storms about to hit New York.  In all of these cases, we actually sustained much less impact and damage that we believed might have been possible from those dire forecasts.

This time, there were again strident continual warnings that this would be a storm unprecedented in recorded history—with the difference that this time those sensational forecasts were essentially right.  The Twitterverse conversations read like Chicken Little Meets The Boy Who Cried Wolf.  I listened without hearing, and spent an hour drinking a glass of wine and scribing the ‘live from the hurricane’ motif in part I of this article.  It sounded like an amusing way to kill time on the mother of all stormy days.

I had even made a last-minute trip to my office to bring more work home to do—what better time than a hurricane to catch up on some projects (like writing this long-neglected blog)?

Choices wise and unwise

In perfect hindsight, this two-hour diversion would have been better spent moving more of my tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of audio-visual production equipment and books to higher ground, where I now sit.  Much of that capital sits one floor below me, totally destroyed after being under seven feet of water for more than 36 hours.

Many neighbors with whom I spoke later had essentially the same reaction, and did little to prepare this time.  There were no formal warnings issued by either City authorities or the management of our building.  But ‘past performance does not guarantee future results.’ The fact that they cried wolf before, and not much happened, is no guarantee they won’t be right this time.

Managing intelligence irrationalities

But then, isn’t this the message?  The principal actors in any corporate value-impacting situation are people, subject to the same foibles and flaws as people in general are.  These ‘mere mortal’ shortcomings I experienced first-hand are the messy essence of group decision-making—not some outlying distortions that need to be ignored or explained away.

It’s these irrationalities in the intelligence process that need to be understood and managed.  The rationalities usually take care of themselves.

My errors were not just some abstract business-school problem, they too were organic—and nearly got me killed. In my anguish at not being able to find both our beloved cats, I rushed downstairs to be confronted by a loud bang that slammed two doors in my face just as I was about to enter one.  I later found out this was the gush of water caused by the collapse of an internal wall between our building and the street…and, as it turned out, the Hudson River.  Inside and outside had become one seamless unity.

The bang-shut-tight doors were unmovable because of the mass of water behind them, which came within inches of our nine-foot ceilings.  Had I been about three seconds faster down the stairs, I would have been trapped in our bedroom with rising water and heavy furniture being tossed around like doll toys.  They would have discovered what was left of me today, when we finally drained the flood water from our building.

Animal vs. human intelligence

I never stopped to realize this at the time, overwhelmed as I was at my distress at losing the cats and a lot of valuable personal stuff.  This was agonizing but, as for the cats, short-lived, as they eventually showed their faces a couple of hours later.  Animal intelligence led them to higher ground just as surely human ‘intelligence’ compelled me squarely into harm’s way.

In term of my personal value framework, I lost much personal property, but  saved the cats, and saved myself — though honestly that was a happy accident.  So I can claim a partial success on that score, though on the whole it gives the word ‘disaster’ a whole new meaning to me.  And I realize that many people had it worse than me, for example those many whose houses were totally destroyed.

Is this a teachable moment?  Is there something to be learned…once our tears have dried, and our losses tallied?

I hate to see people do dumb things — especially when the person doing them is a client, or ME.  I’m working on a post-mortem to examine this intelligence failure, which was replicated in many households across New York City.

Photos copyright © 2012 Tim Wood Powell.  All rights reserved.

1 Response

  1. Tyler says:

    Wow, Tim, what a story! So many people misjudged this storm based on past experience. Very glad to hear that you and your cats made it through — but what a devastating loss of property. Thanks for sharing your thought processes during this disaster — appreciate the insights of “you never think it’s going to be you.” Wishing you all the best for a better year in 2013!

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