Crisis Management and the Error of the Third Kind: The Dangers of Solving the Wrong Problems Precisely

One of the most important but least known errors is the Error of the Third Kind, or E3 for short. E3 is the “error associated with solving the wrong problems precisely.” Indeed, what good does it do to get precise answers to the wrong problems? Not only is it a monumental waste of time and resources, but worst of all, by reaffirming false beliefs, it keeps one going down the “wrong path”. 

Given its importance, it’s disconcerting to say the least that E3 is rarely taught, if at all. Except for those that I’ve taught, I can’t name any other program in which the subject is broached. This is not to say that there are no discussions whatsoever of the various errors associated with problem solving, but that E3 is conspicuously absent.

In terms of CM, E3 is especially important. The most prevalent error is preparing for a few highly select crises, separately and in isolation from one another, thereby not preparing for the full range of crises to which all organizations and institutions are now subject. It’s fundamentally due to not accepting the fact that no crisis ever happens in isolation. Every crisis is the end result of an out-of-control chain reaction of previous crises. Furthermore, unless one is prepared, the current crisis is capable of setting off a new chain reaction of other crises that are even more out-of-control.

Fundamentally, E3 is part of Denial. More often than not, it takes the form, “The worst will not happen to us so that there’s no need to think about it, let alone spend valuable time and resources on it.”

The following is the general set of crises with which the field began. Since the world is constantly adding new ones, it was notably lacking in Public Health crises:

  • Product recalls                                                                                                       
  • Product / service tampering
  • Employee sabotage
  • Fires, explosions, chemical spills
  • Environmental disasters
  • Significant drop in revenues
  • Natural disasters
  • Loss of confidential/sensitive information
  • Major lawsuits 
  • Terrorist attacks 
  • Damage to corporate reputation

The Myers-Briggs Personality Typology Inventory (MBPTI) is especially helpful in gaining further insight into the nature of E3s. Essentially, E3 results from mistaking one’s preferred style of formulating and solving problems as the only acceptable way. 

Four of the MBPTI Types are particularly relevant: Sensing Thinking or ST for short. Intuitive Thinking or NT. Intuitive Feeling or NF. And finally, Sensing Feeling or SF.

STs instinctively approach every situation by automatically breaking it down into its “key essential components,” and then by using impersonal modes of analysis (Logic, Statistics, etc.), to reach specific, detailed conclusions regarding the particular situation or issue at hand. In brief, something is a problem for STs if and only if it’s a technical problem in the narrowest sense such that not only does it have one and only one “right formulation,” but “one and only one right answer” as well.

NTs instinctively approach every situation by looking at the Big Picture, and thereby by considering as many different alternatives as possible. In short, something is a problem if and only if it’s an integral part of a whole System of problems.  

NFs also look at the Big Picture, but it’s not an impersonal one. Something is a problem if and only if it’s part of a whole body of personal problems that directly affect the lives and well-being of the entire communities in which people live and work.

SFs are concerned primarily with their immediate families and close friends. Everything else is too abstract and impersonal. Thus, something is a problem if and only if it directly affects the lives of the small group of people that matter most to them. 

In short, STs focus on specific technical problems separately and in isolation from one another. In sharp contrast, NTs not only focus on multiple perspectives and different versions of the “same problem,” but they pay special attention to the interconnections between problems. NFs also focus on multiple perspectives, but they are highly personal and social. They are concerned with the emotional health and well-being of entire communities. Finally, SFs focus on the emotional health and well-being of their immediate families and close friends.

With regard to CM, the primarily tool of STs is Risk Assessment. That is, they rank various threats in terms of their likelihoods of occurrence and their consequences. Those that are high both in their likelihoods, and especially in their negative consequences, are given primary, if not sole, attention. Those that are low are not given any. In other words, a clear threshold is established below which threats are ignored. The problem—Error—is that those threats like 9/11 and January 6 which are regarded as low in their likelihoods of occurrence are extremely high in their negative consequences. Indeed, the crises we ignore are the ones most likely to come back and do the most damage. 

It seems therefore that NTs and NFs are best positioned to avoid E3s altogether. And, NTs do indeed avoid those E3s that focus narrowly on one or two crises at best. NFs also avoid them as well. NFs are especially tuned to those that affect communities as a whole. Nonetheless, both are still subject to E3s in that they are often weak on dealing with specific technical and personal details that are integral parts of all crises. 

The moral is that all of the Types working together are needed to minimize E3s, and thus to prepare broadly for the full range of crises to which increasingly we all subject. Anything less is the height of social irresponsibility.

About imitroff

Dr. Ian Mitroff is Professor Emeritus at the Marshall School of Business and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. He is the president and founder of Mitroff Crisis Management, a private consulting firm based in Oakland, California, that specializes in the treatment of human-caused crises. He is a Senior Affiliate with the Center for Catastrophic Risk Management at the University of California, Berkeley.
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