Blog, Crisis Management, Politics

Denial and the World of Trump

Originally published February 16, 2017 on The Huffington Post

Since the Tylenol poisonings in 1982, I’ve worked both as a researcher and consultant in the modern field of Crisis Management. Indeed, I am greatly honored that I’m regarded as one of the field’s principal founders.

One of the earliest findings of my colleagues and I was that there were direct organizational counterparts to each of the Freudian Defense Mechanisms. (If Freud had accomplished nothing more than his discovery of Defense Mechanisms, it would have been more than sufficient to assure his lasting fame.) For every one of the classic Defense Mechanisms that Freud discovered that individuals used to protect themselves from realities that were too painful to face, there was a corresponding form that organizations used to protect their collective psyches from unpleasant realities as well.

Most important of all was the finding that there was a powerful correlation between the numbers of Defense Mechanisms an organization used and the attention it devoted to Crisis Management. In brief, the more that an organization denied that something bad could happen to it, the far less money and time it gave to Crisis Management. As a result, it didn’t do nearly as well in responding to major crises, which were inevitable, than those organizations whose denial was significantly lower. Further, because they acknowledged the all-too-real possibility of major crises, those organizations that took Crisis Management seriously picked up problems and fixed them before they became major crises. As a result, they were significantly more profitable. In short, Proactive Crisis Management is not only the right, ethical thing to do to protect an organization, its employees and surrounding communities from harm, but it’s supremely good for business as well.

The point is that while Defense Mechanisms were originally discovered as a phenomenon that applied solely to individuals, they are not confined to individuals alone. They apply as much, if not more, to organizations and whole societies.

Seven basic types of Defense Mechanisms are as follows:
1. Denial
2. Disavowal
3. Idealization
4. Grandiosity
5. Projection
6. Intellectualization
7. Compartmentalization.

Denial most often occurs when people are subject to severe traumatic events such as the sudden and senseless death of a child, violent sexual attacks, war, etc. The event is typically so painful and threatening that the mind shuts down completely and refuses to acknowledge it at all. Disavowal is when the mind acknowledges a painful and threatening event but reduces its scope and magnitude such that it’s bearable. Thus, a large, threatening wildcat becomes a small, tame kitten. Idealization occurs when the mind convinces itself that good people don’t face serious threats. Therefore, the wildcat can’t really be there. Grandiosity is the feeling that one is superhuman and can meet any threat. Projection is when one blames others for something bad. Therefore, someone deliberately put the wildcat there. Intellectualization is when one believes that there are no valid reasons for the wildcat to be there. Compartmentalization is when one part of the mind sees the wildcat, and other parts smell and even feel it, but all of the various parts are not put together, for if they were then one would have to acknowledge a threat that one is powerless to overcome.

In organizations, Denial takes the form, “We’re invulnerable; nothing bad can happen to us.” Disavowal is, “Whatever happens, its impacts are negligible.” Idealization takes the form, “Good organizations don’t have major problems.” Grandiosity is the feeling, “We’re too big and powerful to be taken down by anything!” Projection is, “Someone else is to blame for our problems.” Intellectualization assumes the form, “The probabilities of something bad happening to us are too small to worry about.” Compartmentalization is the feeling, “Something bad cannot affect our whole system; in other words, it can be contained.”

In the case of Trump, the Defense Mechanisms are shared between him and his followers. Denial is prominent in Trump’s refusal to believe the assessments of the national intelligence agencies that the Russians hacked the Democratic Party and that it played a part, however small, in the election. Denial is also present in his supporters’ refusal to acknowledge that Trump is in every respect unfit to be president. It’s present as well in the persistent inability to accept that old-line manufacturing jobs and industries are not coming back. Disavowal is paramount when his followers minimize the dangers of a Trump presidency. Grandiosity and Idealization are prominent in Trump’s persistent claims that only he and he alone can fix our enormous problems. Projection is a persistent aspect of Trump’s character in that he blames everyone but himself for any problems. And, Intellectualization occurs when Trump and his followers explain away all of his awful comments as things not to be taken seriously.

This is not to say that Trump’s opponents didn’t engage in their own forms of Defense Mechanisms when all along they denied that he would ever get the nomination, let alone be elected. And, living as I do in California, we are in denial by believing that we somehow live in a protected bubble, even though we are greatly dependent on federal funds, which Trump could play a major role in cutting off.

But most of all, one is in deep denial if one believes that facts alone will cause someone to face reality. This is a prime case of Intellectualization.

No, impersonal facts alone cannot do the job. Instead, calm, trusted voices are needed to make unpleasant facts and realities palatable. Whether formally trained or not, trusted voices are in effect society’s therapists. We’ve never needed them more than we do now.

If not, then reality intrudes as it always does eventually. But the greater the denial, the more and the greater the unpleasant reality that’s needed to finally break through.

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Blog, Crisis Management, Politics

The Crisis Prone Presidency

Originally published 12/15/16 of the Huffington Post

Those of us who study corporate crises distinguish between Crisis Prone versus Crisis Prepared individuals and organizations. Crisis Prone individuals and organizations put their primary energies into all kinds of faulty rationalizations that allow them to persist in the false belief that they will never have a crisis: “we’re too big and powerful to have major crises;” “crises only happen to others;” “if a crisis happens, someone will come to our rescue,” “there’s no need to prepare for what’ll never happen.” They are prime cases of denial writ large.

In sharp contrast, Crisis Prepared individuals are constantly probing themselves and their organizations for dangerous rationalizations that keep them from preparing for worst-case scenarios. They accept that all crises are preceded by a steady stream of early warning signals that show that a major crisis is highly likely. As a result, they do all they can to put in place specific procedures that will pick up early warning signals. In this way, they hopefully head off major crises before they actually happen, the best form of Crisis Management. Nonetheless, since even with the best of preparations crises still occur, they constantly work to improve and maintain Damage Containment mechanisms. They know that the worst time to set up Damage Containment is during the heat of actual crises. As a result, they are absolutely ruthless in rooting dangerous rationalizations that prevent them from being Crisis Prepared.

My colleagues and I have shown that Crisis Prepared organizations experience significantly fewer crises, are substantially more profitable, have fewer lawsuits and injuries, and lose fewer days in resuming operations than Crisis Prone Organizations. In short, Proactive Crisis Management is not only the right ethical thing to do, but it’s good for business.

Against this backdrop, President Elect Trump fares extremely poorly. In failing to set up a true blind trust, he’s setting himself up for major political conflicts of interest. From the standpoint of Crisis Management, a blind trust is one of the major forms of Damage Containment for potential financial and personal crises. It helps ensure that one’s political office will not be used for financial gain. But then, in order to set up a blind trust, President Elect Trump would have to own up to the very real possibilities of major conflicts of interest. In a word, he would have to stop engaging in denial, which given his personality is one of the most difficult things for him to do.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Too many of his cabinet appointments have already set off hailstorms of protest. They are sure to be embroiled in crises for years.

Trump’s constant use of Twitter is nothing but sorry form of preemptive Damage Control. Instead of heading off crises, it only exacerbates them. So do all his preposterous claims, for instance that he actually won the popular vote because of all the illegal votes that were cast for Hillary.

I expect Trump to stumble from one crisis to others again and again. (China?) Of course, none of this really matters to his base. If anything, they want him to create major crises in order to “drain the Washington swamp.” But what happens if all his promises to bring back jobs and help the middle class only end up helping him and his business cronies? Do we really expect the case of Carrier to be easily replicated?

Are we prepared to confront the crisis when so many downtrodden workers realized that they have been royally betrayed?

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Blog, Business, Crisis Management

Facing Up to Reality: It’s a Mess!

Originally posted June 15th, 2016 on the Huffington Post

In 1979, in a highly critical speech—“The Future of Operational Research Is Past”—that he gave to the Operations Research Society of America, of which he was one of the early founders and past presidents, the late social systems’ theorist Russell L. Ackoff appropriated the word “mess” to stand for a whole system of problems that were so intertwined that one couldn’t take any problem out of the mess and study it independently of all the other problems to which it was connected. In short, to treat problems as if they were independent was not only to distort their “true nature,” and thereby to make their solution impossible, but also to make the mess as a whole unmanageable:

“…Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. Problems are abstractions extracted from messes by analysis; they are to messes as atoms are to tables and chairs. We experience messes, tables, and chairs; not problems and atoms.

“Because messes are systems of problems, the sum of the optimal solutions to each component problem taken separately is not an optimal solution to the mess. The behavior of a mess depends more on how the solutions to its parts interact than on how they act independently of each other.”

The following chain not only shows what we are up against, but it illustrates the “nature of the New Reality.” Each of the components is not only a mess in itself, but all of them are linked together. As such, they constitute A General Mess. One cannot solve anyone of them without solving all of them in concert. More accurately, one cannot cope with any of them without coping with all of them in concert.

The Sustainability Mess, which cannot be tackled without tackling

The Global Warming/Climate Change Mess, which cannot be tackled without tackling

The Renewable Energy Mess, which cannot be tackled without tackling

The Middle East Mess, which cannot be tackled without tackling

The Terrorism and Weapons of Mass Destruction Messes, which cannot be

tackled without tackling

The Fundamentalism and Corruption Messes, which cannot be tackled without tackling

The Poverty Mess, which cannot be tackled without tackling

The Crime Mess, which cannot be tackled without tackling

The Racism Mess, which cannot be tackled without tackling

The Education Mess, which cannot be tackled without tackling

The Income Distribution Gap Mess, which cannot be tackled without tackling

The Unemployment Mess, which cannot be tackled without tackling

The Global Financial Mess, which cannot be tackled without tackling

The European Union Mess, which cannot be tackled without tackling

The Aging Population Mess, which cannot be tackled without tackling

The Social Security Mess, which cannot be tackled without tackling

The Health Care Mess, which cannot be tackled without tackling

The Washington Political Mess, which cannot tackled without tackling the

The Media (failure of the fourth estate) Mess, which cannot be tackled without tackling

The Capitalism Mess, which cannot be tackled without tackling

The Sustainability Mess.

Thus, the whole cycle of messes repeats itself again and again.

Name one public figure if you can who acknowledges that all of our problems are parts of a mess.

Before one can attack a problem, it’s absolutely necessary to understand its true nature.

(I wish to credit Murat Alpaslan for first formulating the General Mess.)

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Blog, Crisis Management

The Cincinnati Zoo: Part II, Repeating the Same Pattern of Crises Over and Over Again!

Originally published June 9th, 2016 on The Huffington Post

I wish fervently that what happened recently at the Cincinnati Zoo was the rare exception. Unfortunately, in my over 30 years of experience as a crisis consultant and university researcher, it’s not.

As we know, a three-year old child somehow slipped behind a barrier and fell into a gorilla enclosure. In order to save the child from harm, the gorilla was shot. Howls of protest over whether the animal had to be killed and calls for the parents to be charged with child endangerment were immediate.

What rankled me most of all was that in defending their actions, the spokesman for the zoo said that they’ve never had such an incident in over 38 years. Somehow, we were supposed to be comforted by this statistic. This completely overlooks the fact that a crisis is the worst time to spout statistics. Despite one’s good intentions and preparations, nothing prevented the unthinkable from occurring. Indeed, it just happened so it wasn’t impossible!

Sadly, what happened fits an all-too-general pattern that pertains to virtually all crises. First of all, somehow someone—in this case a young child—slips behind, breaks through, etc. a protective barrier. The longer that the barrier’s worked, the greater the belief that it will work indefinitely and therefore that it doesn’t need to be reviewed periodically and redesigned. This is especially the case since the barrier met “accepted standards.”

Second, little if any thought and preplanning is given to the “blame game.” In virtually all major crises, stakeholders of all kinds—the author included—come out the woodwork to assess and blame all of the parties involved. Thus, the Zoo blamed the parents and the parents blamed the Zoo. Animal rights groups blamed everyone, etc.

Third, it’s painfully obvious that the spokespersons for the Zoo received little if any training in Crisis Communications. If they had, then they never would have said that “It’s never happened before in 38 years,” or “The current barriers were adequate.” They would have said something like, “Please give us the time to examine the situation more carefully before we get back to you.”

Fourth, on a regular basis, the Zoo should have been examining worst-case scenarios of all kinds. A fundamental part of worst-case scenarios is the total collapse of all of the assumptions that one has been making as to why there won’t be a crisis: “The barriers are sufficient.” “We don’t need training in Crisis Communications.” “The blame game won’t happen, etc.” Thinking the unthinkable should have been a normal part of the everyday culture.

Does this mean that the Zoo should have anticipated and therefore planned for everything perfectly? Of course not! Perfection is not the standard in Crisis Management. It should have been doing what the best crisis-prepared organizations do. It should have been constantly expanding its thinking and thus preparations for all kinds of crises.

For instance, in the few hospitals where I’ve worked as a crisis consultant, realistic-looking dolls have been placed in maternity wards. The test is to see how far someone can get out of the ward holding the fake child in his or her hands. In some cases, they’ve gotten completely out of the hospital with no one questioning and thereby stopping them. Needless to say, the test is repeated again and again until procedures are tightened up such that one can’t make it by the first nurse’s station.

All zoos ought to be doing something similar. Why weren’t dolls or dummies used to test how easily young children could slip through the barriers to animal enclosures? Why weren’t tests conducted frequently and such that they were increasingly more difficult to pass?

Constantly thinking and testing for the unthinkable is the only protection we have against calamities. What happened should not only be a wakeup call for all zoos, but for all organizations.

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Blog, Crisis Management

The Cincinnati Zoo: Part of a Dangerous Pattern

Originally published June 7th, 2016 on the Huffington Post

I wish that what happened recently at the Cincinnati Zoo was the rare exception. Unfortunately, in my over 30 years of experience as a crisis consultant and university researcher, it’s not.

As we know, a young child somehow slipped behind a barrier and fell into a gorilla enclosure. In order to save the child from harm, the gorilla was shot. Howls of protest over whether the animal had to be killed and calls for the parents to be charged with child endangerment were immediate.

What rankled me most of all was that in defending their actions, the spokesman for the zoo said that they’ve never had such an incident in over 38 years. Somehow, we were supposed to be comforted by this statistic. This completely overlooks the fact that a crisis is the worst time to spout statistics. Despite one’s good intentions and preparations, nothing prevented the unthinkable from occurring.

The sad fact (statistic!) is that most organizations merely react to major safety failures and crises. Immediately after they occur, organizations become more concerned about safety and reliability. As a result, they invest more time and money in safety, reliability, and crisis prevention and response. But vigilance is temporary. When things get back to normal, and as a result of increases in allocated resources and heightened attention, the safety and reliability of operations do improve. Organizations then begin to mistake the absence of failure for the presence of safety. They become complacent. Eventually, resources drift away from safety and reliability and towards productivity, efficiency, and profitability. The drift toward failure accelerates when there are time and cost-cutting pressures, and when organizations make tradeoffs between safety and efficiency/productivity/profitability. When the next crisis hits, the cycle begins again.

The challenge is to break the cycle and question the fundamental assumption on which it is based: That there are acceptable tradeoffs between safety, efficiency, and normal operations. There aren’t, period! But, this is easier said than done.

There is no doubt that after the Gulf oil spill, both BP, Transocean, and other companies in the deep-water drilling industry began to (or were forced to) review their safety procedures, test their equipment, renew their commitment to safety, etc. The corrupt branch of the government (Material Management Service) that was supposed to regulate the industry was also restructured. Unfortunately, the attention paid to safety wanes over time.

Consider the following: In February 2001, a colleague and I mailed a questionnaire on Crisis Management to the top executives of the 1000 largest companies (measured in revenues) in the United States. In one section of the questionnaire, the executives were given a generic list of various types of crises (fires, explosions, product tampering, environmental disasters, major lawsuits, etc.), and they were asked to indicate how many of each their organization had experienced in the last 3 years. They were also asked to indicate the capabilities of their organization in responding to or handling the various types of crises.

We intentionally included “terrorist attacks.” We listed this particular type because we wanted to see if U.S. companies were prepared for crises that are extremely infrequent if not improbable. Not surprisingly, the majority of the companies indicated that they had experienced no terrorist attacks and that they had very little capability to handle them. Then, 9/11 happened. In response, we mailed the same questionnaire to the same executives three more times: January 2002, August 2002, and August 2003.

Analyses of the data collected over more than 2 years showed strong support for the notion of the constant drift toward failure and unacceptable tradeoffs between safety and productivity. A significant number of executives who responded to the two questionnaires mailed out in 2002 reported significantly higher levels of capabilities in handling or responding to terrorist attacks. Executives who responded to the questionnaire mailed in 2003, however, reported lower levels. In fact, the average level of capabilities reported before 9/11, and the average level reported two years after 9/11 were about the same. In other words, companies reacted to the 9/11 terrorist attack, increased their preparation level for terrorist attacks, and when it didn’t occur again, their levels of preparation went down dramatically.

We also found that the best crisis prepared organizations—no more than 10-15%-were constantly expanding and testing their preparations. As a result, they were not only constantly improving their preparations for those crises that they had already considered, but they were preparing for new types of crises that they had not previously thought about. They also went about new ways of preparing for them.

For example, I’ve worked as a crisis consultant in a few hospitals. Based on my recommendations, realistic-looking dolls have been placed in maternity wards. The test is to see how far someone can get out of the ward holding the fake child in his or her hands. In some cases, they’ve gotten completely out of the hospital with no one questioning and thereby stopping them. Needless to say, the test is repeated again and again until procedures are tightened up such that one can’t make it by the first nurse’s station.

All zoos ought to be practicing something similar. Why weren’t dolls used to test how easily young children could slip through the barriers to animal enclosures? Why weren’t tests conducted frequently and such that they were increasingly more difficult to pass? Constantly thinking and testing for the unthinkable is the only protection we have against calamities.

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Blog, Crisis Management, Politics

Donald Trump: A Long-term Crisis of the GOP’s Own Making

Originally published 04/01/2016 on the Huffington Post

By any measure, Donald Trump is a major crisis of, for, and by the Republican Party. It’s certainly a crisis of its own making. In doing so, the Republican Party has violated every single one of the key tenets of Crisis Management.

Since 1982 when seven people died after taking Tylenol capsules that were laced with cyanide, I helped start the modern field of Crisis Management. Since then, Crisis Management — the systematic process by which organizations and institutions prepare for major events that threaten to harm them, their key stakeholders, and the general public — has developed enormously.

We pretty well know why crises happen and what organizations, institutions, and even whole societies can and need to do to lessen their susceptibility to crises of all kinds. The basic problem is not the lack of fundamental knowledge about Crisis Management, but the lack of will that is critical for its effective implementation.

Early in my research, and that of others, it became clear that there were a number of key activities that organizations and institutions needed to undertake if they were to be prepared before major crises struck. If they didn’t do these beforehand, then often it was too late for them to recover. In a number of prominent cases, organizations and the careers of individuals were destroyed.

To mention only two, they needed to set up specific mechanisms that would pick up the inevitable Early Warning Signals that accompany and precede virtually all crises. Along with this, they needed to actively probe their systems for potential crises and thereby hopefully prevent them long before they actually occurred, the best possible form of Crisis Management.

For another, they needed to design, put in-place, and continually test and update Damage Containment Systems before major crises occurred. If they didn’t, then a crisis would continue to cause unmitigated harm. BP’s oil spill in the Gulf is the classic worst-case example. Before the well was capped, over 200 million gallons of oil were spilled. In other words, merely reacting inevitably makes the effects of crises far worse.

Against this background, the Republican Party couldn’t have done more to cause a crisis for itself, the nation, and the world than if it had intentionally set out to design and promote a candidate for President in the likes of Donald Trump. (Ted Cruz is not far behind.) Indeed, many have in fact accused the Republican Party for doing precisely this.

Since the 1950’s, its unrelenting messages, both coded and uncoded, of division and hate have not only splintered the Party but the country. In short, the Republican Part has created a culture that has directly spawned the likes of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, etc. In this regard, Trump and Cruz are not aberrations. They are the end result of forces that have been brewing unabated in the system for over 60 years.

One of the worst things that faulty cultures do is that they render Early Warning Signals moot and irrelevant. For months, it was apparent that Trump posed a major threat to the Party and to the country. By the time that Mitt Romney and others stepped in and sounded the alarm, and thereby tried to contain the damage, massive harm was already done. A BP-like oil spill of monumental proportions has swamped the Party, and even worse, threatens the country and the entire world.

In retrospect how many how many different groups does a candidate have to insult—clear Early Warning Signals—before it’s readily apparent that major efforts in Damage Containment are needed? But then, the Party repeatedly deluded itself with faulty rationalizations such as “Trump is just a flash in the pan; he’ll burn himself out; he’ll never be taken seriously; etc.”

(The Donald’s latest gaffe about women who have abortions needing to be punished is only the latest lame attempt in Damage Control, too late and too little after the fact.)

Make no mistake about it. If someone like Trump is elected, the damage will be enormous. The worst fear is that it will not just be long lasting, but irreversible, certainly to the Republican Party, and worst of all, to the entire nation and the world.

Since it did an awful job in preparing for a major crisis, the Party is banking on its last hope of Damage Containment, an open convention. But even if another candidate is eventually selected, the all-too-real fear is that it will only provoke waves of violence from those who hanker for authoritarian leaders such as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz.

One of the key lessons of Crisis Management is that no crisis is ever a single, well contained, and isolated crisis. Instead, if an organization or institution is not prepared for a wide variety of crises, then no matter what the initial crisis, it invariably sets off an uncontrolled chain reaction of other just as bad, and in many cases, even worse crises. In the case of the Republican Party, trying reactively to contain the damage to one crisis threatens to set off even worse ones.

The moral is that the costs of not preparing for major crises are always higher and worse than those of proper prior preparation.

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Blog, Crisis Management, Philosophy + Systems

Ebola Is a True Systems Crisis: It Must Be Managed Systemically or It Cannot Be Managed At All

Originally posted October 21, 2014 on the Huffington Post

As most know by now, the response in the U.S. to Ebola has been mixed at best. On the one hand, the infectious disease has not spread uncontrollably. Despite serious snafus, the health system is learning how to manage the disease. On the other hand, the health system should have known from the very beginning that it was dealing with a disease and a situation that demanded a true systems understanding and appropriate response. The appointment of an “Ebola Tsar” is a belated acknowledgement of the fact that Ebola must be managed systemically or it cannot be managed at all.

Let me address briefly some of the many systems factors.

First, of all, without exception, all crises are due in large part to the fact that a series of key assumptions that we have been taking as fundamentally true prove to be completely invalid, if not outright false. But more than this, virtually all of the key assumptions on which we depend collapse all at once and in their entirety. Most of us can live with the collapse of one or two of our basic assumptions, but few can still function when our entire belief systems collapse. This is precisely why crises are so devastating.

Thus, a basic taken-for-granted assumption was given that hospitals essentially know how to contain infectious disease that originate within their immediate boundaries, they would be equally good at containing severe infectious diseases that not only originate from outside, but from afar. Obviously this was not the case.

Another key assumption was that encasing humans in state-of-the-art astronaut-like protective gear from head to toe was more than adequate in protecting aid workers from catching and spreading the disease. That is, current protective gear and procedures were more than satisfactory. As we now know, protection has had to be revised so that it has become even more stringent. Even more parts of the human body have had to be encased.

Next, there was the assumption that government agencies were not only sufficiently well-coordinated and would thus work together, but that they knew how to present the message that Ebola was a serious health threat, but that there were no reasons to panic. In other words, how do we “scare people enough to get their attention, but not enough to cause wide-spread disruption and panic?” The international airline industry has seen the result in lost revenues as people are afraid to fly.

The international transportation system is of course a big part of the problem, and as such, the disease. How indeed are passengers to be monitored and induced to report that they may have been exposed to dangerous viruses? Threatening to embargo all flights from West African countries is not only simple-minded, but actually is counterproductive. It just induces people to enter the U.S. by other less monitored means, and by doing so, just adds to the danger. But then, fear is never wholly rational.

A truly systemic approach to Ebola and the next inevitable animal to human transmitted disease would start by listing as much as is humanly possible the key assumptions upon which we are basing our recognition of the disease and our efforts at controlling, better yet coping, with it. But even more, a truly systemic approach would recognize that the various assumptions are interdependent, not independent. They affect one another in ways that we are struggling to understand.

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