A Lesson From World War I – Don’t Panic –It’s Only ‘Flu.

You may have heard of the Spanish ‘Flu pandemic of 1919.  Well I thought I knew a little about it, and therefore thought I knew more than a lot of people.  I have recently discovered, however, that what little I thought I knew was largely wrong!  While in the process of correcting my misconceptions, I reflected on a number of questions the story raised in my mind, and drew some lessons to apply in business and everyday life.

What’s Its Name?

The first thing I had to correct was the name: it was not Spanish, and it did not begin in 1919.  It began in January 1918, or possibly a little earlier, and continued until December 1920.  Experts disagree as to the place where it originated.  Candidates include China, America and Canada.  Spain is not one of them, but was the most publicised country to be affected, partly because The story was given particular prominence in the Spanish press because one of the disease’s victims, who eventually recovered, was the King, and being neutral in the Great War, it was one of the few countries not subject to severe press censorship.

Keep It Quiet!

In other countries reporting the extent and seriousness of the ‘flu pandemic was “discouraged” because the authorities feared that it would be a further blow to morale, but they permitted the publication of this and other stories about events in neutral countries. The British press did not exactly cover up the seriousness of the pandemic at home, but they did not give it much prominence, nor whip up panic, with doom-filled predictions, in the way much less serious epidemics have been reported in recent years.

What Has The War Got To Do With It?

There is considerable disagreement as to the relationship between the pandemic and the War.  It is clear that the War did not directly cause the disease, but it may have contributed to its spread.  The number of people moving long distances may have helped the disease to travel.  The weakening effects of living in such harsh conditions may have made soldiers and civilians more susceptible to the disease.

On the other hand, there is evidence that this particular form of ‘flu was more deadly for healthy young people than for older or younger ones.  Death seems to have been caused by an over-reaction of the body’s immune system.  So the weakening effects of the wartime economy may not have played much part in it.  It is also likely that soldiers received better medical treatment than most civilians, in the days before the NHS.  It is also important to note that the disease affected many parts of the World not involved in the War, such as Indonesia, Africa, and South America.

This is a warning against making easy assumptions about cause and effect in any situation.  It is especially important in making good decisions in management, including managing risks.  We need to go beyond the “facts” and ask “Why?” before coming to any conclusions.

How Bad Was It?

The numbers are almost unbelievable, whether you take the highest or lowest estimates.  In three years 500 million people were infected, about a third of the world’s population at the time, of whom somewhere between 50 million and 100 million died, or about 4 percent of the world’s population, and a particularly high proportion of those infected, 20%.  It was probably worse than the Black Death.  In Britain “only” about 250,000 died.  In the U.S.A. the pandemic affected about two or three million people of whom from 500,000 to 700,000 died.

The numbers of servicemen killed on both sides in the First World War are probably around nine or ten million and probably a similar number of civilians died as a result of the war, from various causes, including starvation and various diseases, apart from the ‘flu.  In Britain the numbers are around 700,000 to 900,000 servicemen, and probably another 100,000 civilians.  It is therefore perhaps understandable that in Britain the War is remembered far more than the ‘flu pandemic.  On a worldwide scale, however, it can be seen that the pandemic was a far greater catastrophe than the War.  In the U.S.A. the War accounted for the deaths of around 100,000 servicemen and a similar number of civilians: a much smaller number than those who died of the ‘flu.  Yet it is the War that has had the attention of historians, politicians, artists, poets, and writers of all kinds, in most countries.  I have never heard a poem about the ‘flu.

Now of course, it was, and is, right to ask “Why”.   It is also worthwhile to try to learn lessons, to hope to prevent another War, to see if the numbers of casualties could have been fewer, to think of better ways of treating the physical and mental wounds incurred by so many.  We should of course remember those who gave their lives in that conflict.  Let us never forget.

Were there not lessons to be learned from the ‘flu pandemic too?  Could we have stopped it before it reached such huge proportions?  Could our response have been better managed, to reduce the number of deaths and to mitigate its effect on the economy?   You may reply that the medical profession did study the pandemic and produce reports and theses on the issues raised, and that eventually, governments did respond.  I would say that the political and social response was at least as inadequate as the efforts at preventing further wars.  I remember the ineptitude with which the 2001 Foot and Mouth epidemic was handled by the authorities, as if nobody had learnt anything since 1919.  Fortunately that disease only affects animals.

What Is Your Reaction?

Did the public accept the pandemic as beyond anyone’s control?  Otherwise, why were there not the same sorts of protests demanding “Never again!” as there were against militarisation in many countries in the inter-war years, and subsequently?

I believe that this shows how our perception of an event, and therefore our reaction to it, can be influenced by the way it is reported.  Who sets the agenda?  I know, from many years of handling liability claims, that what happens after an accident can be as important as what did or did not happen in the first place.  Attempted denials, blaming the victim, a casual attitude to your responsibilities, a lack of sympathy for a victim, or a premature admission can all do serious damage to your reputation, whether the accident was your fault or not, whilst sometimes a cover-up can do more harm to an organisation’s reputation than the facts which they sought to cover up

So not only do we need to be careful how we interpret the News, but we also need to think how our own deeds and words may be reported. The public’s reaction to a mistake we make may be greatly out of proportion to the actual seriousness of the event.  

Another Lesson from World War I – Trust

As I have said previously, one of the failings of the leaders on all sides during the First World War was their apparent failure to learn from their mistakes.  Once both sides had established their positions in the trenches, the tactics hardly ever changed despite the stalemate.  Winston Churchill commented at the time that there must be an alternative to “sending men to chew barbed wire.”  Yet no such alternative seems to have been adopted until towards the end of the War when the use of tanks was introduced.

You might think this was the result of a lack of imagination on the part of those in charge, and to some extent you could be right.  However, I learnt recently of another factor influencing their decisions, or arguably their lack of them.  This was revealed by Field Martial Haigh in his memoirs.  He explained that he would have considered trying different approaches if the Army had consisted of professional soldiers.  Being aware that the vast majority of the men were volunteers, and later conscripts, with only a limited amount of basic training, Haigh, and apparently the other generals, did not trust them to carry out any more complicated tasks than those required for returning enemy fire from the trenches and occasionally attempting to advance in great numbers straight towards the enemy, through bomb-craters and over barbed wire, while being fired upon.  Haigh wrote that he was afraid we could lose the War if he allowed the men to try anything more difficult, and it had gone wrong.

You might think that this lack of trust in the men was due to the snobbish attitude prevalent at the time among the upper classes, of which he was a member.  Many of them seemed to think uneducated people were unintelligent.  They also believed, with perhaps more justification, even if they may have been actually wrong, that people whose lives were spent doing what other people told them, would not develop the initiative needed to carry out difficult tasks unsupervised, and that on the battlefield, quick-thinking is essential if there is any chance of encountering the unexpected.  It has to be said that the horrors experienced day after day at the Front probably did not contain anything unexpected after a short time.

You might however adjust your opinion, as I tell you that the Field Martial extended his lack of trust to the officers as well as other ranks.  He believed that even these Eton-and-Oxbridge-educated sons of the aristocracy had such little knowledge or experience of military things that they were quite likely to make very poor decisions if they were given too much responsibility, with possibly catastrophic results.

Whether Haigh was right or wrong in his assessment of the men and the officers under his command, I certainly believe that trust is an essential element in battle.  I pleased to tell you that I have come to this understanding at second-hand, but am convinced it is true.  It is also true that we need trust if we are to work together effectively in many other areas of life, and it is worth asking yourself how much you trust the employees, partners or other colleagues in your business.  Perhaps you are, like me, not of a naturally trusting nature.  Perhaps you have had good reason to regret trusting people too much in the past.  Perhaps you are reluctant to delegate.  Do you believe that “if you want something doing right you have got to do it yourself”?

When I look back, or look around, I can think of too many examples of managers who did not or do not trust their subordinates.  In many cases the remedy would be better training or mentoring, not to mention communication.  Remember, we have to develop the managers of the future.  In most businesses it should be possible to organise things so that one slip-up by an employee would not be catastrophic.  An option not available to Field Martial Haigh.

If you really cannot trust the people around you – if you are sure the answer does not lie in training etc. – then perhaps you should think of changing something.  Like your employees, or yourself.

Another famous general, Napoleon, said that every French soldier carried a Field Martial’s baton in his knapsack, and he won a lot of battles.  Who will be your role-model?

Can you see Risk Management in the Easter Story?

Did Jesus take sensible measures for his own safety or did he walk right into trouble?
[See St.Luke Chapter 19 verses 29 to 35 and Chapter 22 verses 24 to 30.]
Jesus is expecting trouble and has made some secret preparations. When he sends his disciples to collect the donkey, and later when he sends them to prepare for the Passover supper, he gives them specific things to say and to look out for.  The owner of the donkey and also the host for the Passover supper, have obviously been told to expect him and it is all planned to draw as little attention as possible.  St.Luke shows that Jesus death was inevitable and had been foretold many times, but he was keeping control of events up to the right time.  He did not blunder in blindly.  
So in planning our lives so as to take control of the risks, we are following a good precedent. 

Are you one of the 60% who are below average?

Many people find statistics confusing for many reasons, not least because of the ways in which they are often presented, as I have tried to show in previous blogs.  To all this there is often added the confusion of the meaning of the terms used, and none is more commonly misunderstood than the word “average”.  The word is used in everyday speech to cover three distinct mathematical concepts, each of which has its uses.  Often it does not matter much as we do not always need to be precise, but when reporting on statistics people really should be clear as to what they are saying.

I will use a simple, made-up, example which I hope will illustrate my point.  Consider this series of values.  They could be anything: incomes, costs, sales, numbers of employees.  Let’s say each represents the value of sales for a different business for a particular month.   It does not matter whether they are in pounds, thousands or millions – unless one of them is your business!

Company.   Sales.

A                     20

B                     25

C                      25

D                     30

E                      35

F                      50

G                     50

H                     50

I                       75

Total               360

The Mean is the simple average obtained by adding all the values in a series and dividing by the number of items.  In this case 360 divided by 9 making 40.

The Median is the middle value, which will have as many above it as below.  As these are set out in ascending order the median will be the middle i.e. company E, the fifth in the list, with a value of 35.

The Mode is the most commonly occurring value.  In this case it is easy to see that value is 50.

In many cases the three averages are the same, as a lot of things seem to cluster around the middle, but as the above example illustrates, they can be very different.  So you could easily find that the majority of people were below the median and/or the mode, as is the case in real life if we look at incomes, although obviously only half of us will ever be below, or above, the mean.


How Statistics Have Helped Women.

If any group of people should be grateful for statistics being used correctly, that group is women!

I can remember a time when very few women drove cars, and very few drivers were women.  You did not need to look at any statistics to notice that.  In those days most men thought women were definitely inferior to men as drivers, whatever else they might be good at.  Insurance companies accepted this as received wisdom, and charged women higher premiums than men.  Nearly all comedians had a stock list of woman-driver jokes, generally about women being easily distracted by such trivia as sales adverts in shop windows, not knowing right from left, and thinking the car’s mirror was for checking their make-up.  Some men thought that allowing women to drive was even more irresponsible than given them the vote.  Ironically, one woman who did not drive was especially unpopular with most male motorists: the Minister of Transport in the mid-1960’s, Barbara Castle.

The cause of women’s equality was not helped by an unfortunate and highly publicised incident.  There was a bus-conductress in Yorkshire, Bradford I think.  (For the benefit of younger readers, I had better explain that a bus-conductor, or if female conductress, was someone who collected fares, issued tickets and maintained order on busses.  Nowadays bus-drivers are expected to do all the foregoing duties as well as driving the vehicle. The change was made in the name of efficiency.) This woman was determined to become a bus-driver, and managed to get her employers to give her all the necessary training.  There was then a lot of controversy as most of her male colleagues objected, putting management in a dilemma.  After much debate, they let her drive.  She then had three accidents in the first three days she was on the road.  Whether this was due to her lack of ability, to the stress she was under with all the controversy, or just bad luck, I do not know.  I do know that this single example was quoted frequently, as if conclusive proof that women should not be allowed to drive.  You will observe that a single incident, or three, hardly counts as significant statistically.

Eventually women’s self-esteem was rescued, making the comedians seek other targets, by an unlikely band of champions: insurance underwriters!  These unsung heroes actually knew how to collect, analyse and interpret statistics correctly.  They discovered the fact that women generally had fewer accidents than men.  This information led to lower premiums being charged to women-drivers, to the amazement of most men.  I will not speculate as to the reasons for this difference, I merely state a fact.

Statistics have also helped the broader movement for women’s equality, by providing factual information as to the numbers of women employed in various organisations, and their levels of pay.  This has provided almost conclusive proof of the existence of the “glass ceiling” in many occupations, as well as of the unequal pay for the same or similar work in certain industries.  This information has not always led to the immediate rectification of the injustices, but it has at least forced Society to face the facts and stop being in denial.  You may think I have just ignored the issue of multiple factors influencing human behaviour.  I acknowledge that there may be causes other than discrimination to explain some of the apparent inequalities, such as women choosing to avoid certain occupations, or disabilities genuinely preventing some people doing certain jobs.  However, the statistical evidence has forced employers to accept that there is a case to answer, and that it must be answered properly, not with unsubstantiated excuses.

So although I stand by my warnings about the many ways you can be misled by statistics, I want to remind you of the value of statistics when they are used properly.

New Government initiative on cyber security.

The Government have brought out a new initiative to improve cyber security. For details go to https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/cyber-essentials-scheme-overview

I would like to make the following comments:

It is good that they are taking cyber security seriously and are now expecting organisations to be pro-active in protecting their and other people’s data.  So you can be in trouble for failing to act even if there has not been an actual breac. This is consistent with the way the Law operates in other areas relating to different kinds of safety.  You can be fined for driving a vehicle without an MoT or with bald tyres even if you have not had an accident. Or you can be fined for not having a Health & Safety Policy even if nobody has been injured.

On the negative side:

  1. It fails to address some of the latest scams and cyber-crimes.
  2. It deals only with computer issues, whereas the ICO report that over half the data breaches they investigate are caused by human error or wrongful acts and not IT failures.
  3. It seems to be aimed at big businesses, but the majority of businesses are small, and small businesses need to protect their data just as much as big businesses.
  4. There are more affordable actions small businesses can take to protect their data, but these are largely ignored.

Overall it is a step in the right direction, but not a big enough one.

If you want to go into this in more detail, or to get realistic advice on protecting your data contact me on john@jhmriskmanagementservices.co.uk or ring 01925 445215.





Spring is Here at Last!


We are on British Summer Time.  Everything is Growing.

I hope your business is growing.  Now is a good time for new ideas, initiatives and projects.
This is also the time when things can go badly wrong. Don’t be an April Fool – think about the risks of growth – go to   http://EzineArticles.com/?expert=John_Harvey_Murray Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/8211524   to see all of them and a few more.  Above all, now is the time to review your risk controls and risk management strategies. And that is why I am making my new Spring Offer for small businesses. It will be in my next newsletter and on the Big Local App.