The panic tax

Systems under severe stress degrade.

While individuals might do extraordinary work while pumped with adrenalin (lifting a car, running through a burning building), panic can decrease the efficacy of a system by 30% or more–often completely destroying it.

Compare the typical throughput of a highway during rush hour (when it's filled with seasoned commuters) to a similar road when people are fleeing a natural disaster…. in the first case, the cars naturally keep a safe distance, drivers are sufficiently alert, everyone gets home. In the other, there's a complete standstill.

Or consider how the TSA functions in an environment of stress (like the Orlando airport). A combination of leisure travelers, poor management and bad architecture means that (at least every time I've been there), there's a lot of yelling, invaded space and wasted time. Not to mention frayed nerves among Disney-overdosed parents in need of anything but more hassle.

Here are some thoughts for someone who might want to write a book about the panic tax (or someone who runs a system that shouldn't be degraded):

1. The cost of ameliorating panic in your system is always less than the cost of the lost productivity when panic hits. In other words, all the other steps are worth it.

2. Slack is the enemy of panic. When in doubt, add resources, or even simpler, remove requirements. That's what the gated entry points on crowded freeways do… the entire road goes faster when fewer cars are on it, meaning that gating cars at the entrance is actually far faster than letting them on over the course of the commute.

3. Media voices, politicians and others that create panic for a living need to own responsibility for the way their actions dramatically magnify the cost we all pay.

4. The answer to, "should we panic," is always no. Always. Panic is expensive, panic compounds and panic doesn't solve the problem.

5. Install panic dampers at every opportunity. TSA officers should be trained to talk more softly and slowly when their systems approach capacity. Sound deadening devices should be tuned to be most effective when volume increases. The police should be trained to seek compliance second, after they are able to diffuse panic.

6. They call them panic attacks for a reason. After-action review, an attack-analysis session, ought to be held whenever a system freezes under panic. Find the instigator, the first step, not the last one, and invest in what it takes to ameliorate it next time.

Mostly: Panic averted is far cheaper than panic survived.