It all comes down to the people in your team.

In 2002, the Pentagon picked Paul van Riper, a retired Marine and a veteran of the Vietnam War and the first Gulf War, to lead the “enemy” forces battling US forces in the Millenium Challenge war game. Van Riper’s mission was “clearly: impossible; his forces had to contain much better prepared, much better equipped, much better supplied “US” forces. If that was not enough, the US forces had access to a number of new technological “silver bullets.” These included a decision making tool, Operational Net Assessment, a thinking outside the box tool, Effects-Base Operations and, better than anything experienced before, the Common Relevant Operational Picture, a comprehensive real-time map of the combat situation.

Unfortunately, things did not exactly go as planned. Van Riper actually had a plan, a team behind that plan, and the insight that commanders in the field might have better information and a greater ability to handle unpredictable situations than the all the shiny new tools available to central command.

As many times occurs in real life, effectiveness comes down to the people in your team; not the technology; not the silver bullets. One wishes that the upper echelons at the Department of Homeland Security had learned this lesson by now. Unfortunately, millions of people in New Orleans are now suffering and the US finds itself in the humbling position of having to “explain” to the International Community how, in spite of all our technological development and our immense resources, we handled the aftermath of Katrina in such a disastrous manner.

The events taking place in New Orleans and its surroundings are not easy to rationalize. The entire situation was not due to an unexpected or unpredictable event. It was not an earthquake. It was not a terrorist attack. The Weather Service did predict Katrina and if anything, the storm did not follow the most devastating path predicted. So, one has to wonder why the response was so incompetent? We know it is possible to do better. Just during the last week, the Japanese authorities handled quite gracefully two typhoons (Chaba and Songda) and two major Earthquakes.

Finding creative, effective responses to complex problems comes down to having the right team in place. Unfortunately, some consultants’ exaggerated claims aside, we are truly just starting to understand the criteria by which to put together in a consistent way effective teams. Much still needs to be learned and much research needs to be focused on how to assembly effective teams.

We do know some things, however. I have recently reported in Science that effective teams from across a number of areas share important characteristics. They have the right balance of people with experience (50% to 60%) and fresh blood. They also include a significant fraction of novel collaborations for the experienced team members. The comfort that comes with being always in agreement or being able to complete another person’s sentences may be great in a marriage, if a little boring, but it is unwise on a team trying to solve complex problems.

We do have the right to ask how the response team to Katrina was assembled. Which criteria were used? Did the people responsible for assembling that team really knew what they were doing? If the situation in the field provides any answer to this last question; that answer appears to be a resounding “NO.”

Luis Amaral