Avoiding the Somebody Else’s Problem Field

Erik Bernstein crisis management

Avoiding the Somebody Else’s Problem Field

Don’t make this common, and often damaging, crisis management mistake!

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, author Douglas Adams famously described the “Somebody Else’s Problem” (SEP) cloaking device as the perfect way to hide even the most noticeable of items, writing, “An SEP is something we can’t see, or don’t see, or our brain doesn’t let us see, because we think that it’s somebody else’s problem. That’s what SEP means. Somebody Else’s Problem. The brain just edits it out, it’s like a blind spot.”

While of course the SEP as a physical cloaking device is fictional, it’s rare a week passes by without seeing some example of a virtual “Somebody Else’s Problem” field creating crises in the real world. Take the recent case of an Air Canada passenger who was somehow not noticed still sleeping in their seat by flight crew after landing, not spotted by cleaning crew or maintenance staff, then left alone on the plane as it was towed and parked far from the terminal. Can you tell me that situation is anything else but the result of quite a few experienced employees somehow determining that fully clearing the cabin before the aircraft headed out to pasture was Somebody Else’s Problem?

The SEP issue doesn’t only touch on human error among staff, but also frequently appears in business leadership. For example, when issues like public criticism or aggressive litigation begin to impact some of the players in any given industry, the first instinct for those left untouched is often to breathe a sigh of relief because what happens at another company must be Somebody Else’s Problem…right?

What’s often missed during these times is that, though these are currently Somebody Else’s Problems, the fact that they’re happening to organizations quite similar to your own – perhaps sharing business models, customer bases (and they expectations that come with), suppliers, tax structures, and on and on – means you’re at risk of sharing those same problems tomorrow.

What’s the lesson here? Never assume any issue is 100% Somebody Else’s Problem until you’ve investigated fully, put backups in place to catch the inevitable system failures and, most importantly, take steps to ensure these are part of your day-to-day business not only in protocol, but also in practice, with regular training and reminders for everyone from the front lines to the C-suite. While it’s fun to imagine the SEP hiding an outlandish spacecraft in the world of Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide. trust me when I say it’s far less enjoyable to experience it in action creating crises for your organization here on Earth.

Erik Bernstein