Introduction to “issue storms”

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This is about a highly nonlinear information flow that I call an issue storm, which I discovered about 40 years ago but never wrote about because I was making lots of money knowing about it.

To begin with we need what I call looping. If A communicates to B and B replies to A that is a single loop. When a major issue arises in an organization, or community, or country, or globally, there can be a tremendous amount of looping.

Moreover, this body of looping will have a specific pattern, which will vary from case to case. Imagine if you could just look down in the dark and see all the email traffic as an issue breaks, grows and spreads, with each email as a streak of light. You could see the pattern, including how it changes over time.

I call such a body of looping an issue storm. These storms can be very disruptive because they consume a lot of cognitive resources. In fact they can be paralyzing. Managing them is a major challenge, which most of our management tools do not do well. We need new tools.

On the other hand, in the policy world issue storms are very important. This is how major policy issues get thrashed out and final policies get articulated. CFACT is a storm center for important energy and environmental issues. We even start a few storms, like whales versus offshore wind.

In addition to different patterns, issue storms can have vastly different sizes and durations. A quick argument might be a two person, ten minute storm with a few dozen simple exchanges. A major issue might involve thousands of exchanges, many involving large groups, and last for several years. The climate debate has been going on for over 40 years, with millions of exchanges. It likely is the biggest issue storm in history.

Typically, we are hit by multiple storms at the same time. Ours is an issue driven world, which is why we often do not know what issues we will be working on a week from now. Thus, predicting and managing issue storms is a major challenge. I have done a lot of work on that as well.

It all depends on the nature of the storm and your place in it. This is a very broad topic so here are just a few general points.

The most important thing is to understand the concept. Just knowing that issue storms exist and their basic properties should help you anticipate and deal with them to a considerable degree. It may be all you need in many cases.

Predicting issue storms is also important. In some cases it may be possible to predict that one or more storms will occur. Then one can take steps so as not to be surprised. There are really two cases here. The nature of the storm might be predictable or it may just be that something is likely to happen, you know not what.

An example of the first case is when you publish a controversial finding and can expect a negative reaction from certain sources. You should budget your time for dealing with this.

An example of the second case that I have done a lot of work on is when you plan an innovative or unprecedented project. If it has not been done before it is very likely that you will encounter unanticipated problems. Your Plan should include a rapid response capability, plus added time and budget. Note that this is not contingency planning because the contingencies are unknown.

When a storm hits you need to think about the pattern and how it is likely to evolve over time. A major consideration for yourself (and those you manage) is how to budget time. Issue storms tend to rapidly consume cognitive resources, especially attention and thinking, so a useful principle is not to involve others unless necessary, thereby conserving resources.

When it comes to internal issue storms, management faces two opposite challenges. The first is early identification and rapid resolution of lower level issue storms before they blow up. The second is not creating wasteful storms. I have seen entire organizations paralyzed when top management raised relatively unimportant issues that then consumed many people’s time for days.

The deep problem is that while work (and life) has increasingly become issue driven we simply do not have the tools to manage the issue storms that buffet us and our organizations. We do not even have the concepts and language to talk about these things. Issue storms have specific natures, consume specific resources, and evolve in specific ways. If we cannot even describe these features then we certainly cannot manage them. This is a research project in waiting.

But at least we can understand that issue storms are there and we are in them. Take time from engaging to study the critter itself. Above all stay calm. Rise above the storm.

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* This article was originally published here


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