80,000 Nikes overboard: but not a sole was lost!

By Bruce Grady

What, you may well ask, do Nikes overboard have to do with a collaboration and emergency management blog? Well quite a lot in fact.

Our story starts on 27 May 1990, the freighter ship Hansa Carrier was caught in a horrific North Pacific storm en-route to the USA. It seems that 4-5 Nike containers were tossed overboard. In that one storm Nike lost roughly 80,000 pairs of shoes, all of them just drifting along in our oceans (interesting fact: a running shoe can float for around 10 years).

“Collaboration creates opportunities for innovation and innovation solves problems. Problem solving is the life-blood of good disaster management.”

Eventually the shoes started washing ashore one by one, and all of them were wearable after a quick scrub-down. The problem, however, was that the shoes were not tied together. So this beachside bonanza was for nought as people were finding tens, or even hundreds, of shoes: all odd feet, sizes and styles.

Still not convinced this has anything to do with emergency management? Pieces of information gathered during a crisis or a disaster can be a bit like this jogger jetsam – it might look good but is actually pretty useless by itself. Even lots of information might be of little value unless it matched. In a disaster many agencies and organisations hold pieces of information, and mostly they seem to hold on to it.

Now comes the interesting bit from the Nike story. Somebody started to arrange swap meets to find matching pairs. One bright-spark even created a web based matching system where people could log and match the shoes they found. Sounds simple, and it is – but this practical approach to collaboration is all too often the missing ingredient from crisis response. COLLABORATION is the point of this tale.

Pressure, unrealistic timeframes and attitudes often conspire to keep information in silos. Information is the only asset that grows in value when you give it away.

Let’s look at a real life example: Tropical Cyclone Larry, far-north Queensland, 2006. A high voltage transmission tower was blown over, cutting power to Cairns and beyond. Hundreds of thousands of people without power. Estimates of more than a week to fix the problem. If the problem and the information were left in its organisational silos that’s exactly what would have happened – leaving a battered community suffering even more. What actually happened was the right people were put together in a spirit of collaboration. What was created was a solution: a pre-fabricated tower was located; the military accessed a heavy lift helicopter; Local council identified a location; disaster powers were applied and road cut through a cane farm; a concrete pad laid; the tower “choppered” into position and lines reconnected. Hey-presto high voltage power – in less than two days. Nothing overwhelmingly complicated but all impossible without the frameworks, commitment and attitudes to getting the right people in the right place with the right mission. They each had a piece of the puzzle but they could only solve it when they all came together!

Make sure that your emergency systems and processes actively create collaboration and don’t constrain information into silos and keep it there. Collaboration creates opportunities for innovation and innovation solves problems. Problem solving is the life-blood of good disaster management.

It’s certainly more important than a washed up pair of sneakers!

Bruce was the Assistant Director-General leading Emergency Management Queensland, and now lends his expertise and experience by consulting to governments and organisations seeking to outperform the impacts of disaster and crisis. Bruce is member of Global Resilience Collaborative.

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