When are strategic measures ‘good’ for society?

The key question is: “What do ‘common sense’ and ‘ethical’ mean when it comes to strategic measures? And how do you ensure that they are ‘healthy’?

Common sense in measures is a combination of words that has been misused in history. Some to preach hatred, others to commit genocide, still others to exterminate sparrows. This was done without applying criteria of what constitutes good strategic measures. These criteria must be created. I am making an attempt here. Criteria that help to ensure that the measures are ‘OK’. And it doesn’t have to be because no one is complaining.  In this post I give my own opinion, not that of any organization.  
Author: Manu Steens

Criteria for good strategic social measures

In my opinion, ‘good’ as in ‘common sense’ can be expressed with proportionality, caution, effectiveness and efficiency. A measure is ethically good if it does not involve suffering of any kind, and one does not uselessly destroy things. To do this, it must be possible to detect whether or not these conditions have been met.

Strategic Actions with ‘Common Sense’: The Four Criteria

For the ‘common sense’ aspect, I refer to ‘Risk Analysis and Governance in EU Policy Making and Regulation‘ by Bernardo Delogu who wrote that a number of criteria, criteria for a healthy measure, are given by

  • Proportionality
  • Caution
  • Effectiveness
  • Efficiency

These four criteria, seemed to me to reflect the philosophy that measures must meet. After all, in order to carry out its tasks, a production organisation often looks at the legislation. If they strictly follow it, everything is ok. But I have often wondered why. Moreover, the principle of legality is outdated for many things, because legislation inherently lags behind technical reality. There must therefore be other criteria that a measure or set of measures of an organization can meet in order to be in order according to the authorities. Even if there is no legislation yet. These four criteria provide a possible interpretation for this. I will briefly discuss each of them here.


Proportionality means that there must be a reasonable relationship between the aim and the means used, the expected benefits of the measure must be proportionate to the expected disadvantages. These ideas are based on proportionality in medicine.

An example of what was proportional in the post-WWII era was the creation of NATO. In short, this creation was the result of a difference in worldview and vision between the West and the East of the Iron Curtain about how things should be in the world at the time.


Caution is attention to potential danger – caution about danger or risk.

An example of caution against an inherent danger is the EU study on the presence of the listeria bacterium in ready-to-eat foods. This bacterium releases toxins, but not in milk and milk products (cheeses) under certain conditions.

Effectiveness and efficiency

I will discuss these two together to make the difference very clear.

Effective means ‘effective, regardless of how the goal is achieved’.

Efficient means ‘efficient, in a way that requires little resources or effort’

If you want to do your job effectively, the idea is that you complete the assignment successfully, and deliver what was requested. Moreover, if you want to do your work efficiently, you use synergies between (partial) assignments, for example. For example, you can use the path of least resistance.

If the goal is to achieve a certain turnover, it may be effective if you achieve that assignment with a lot of effort in a red ocean, but it will be more efficient in a blue ocean.

Evelyn Ivy writes, “Being effective means doing the right things, but being efficient means doing things the right way. Let me give you an example that most business owners can relate to: let’s say business has been reduced. Firing your employees may be the most effective thing to do, but is it efficient? When you fire good employees, you lower the morale of the other employees and overall productivity in the long run.”

When is a measure ‘morally permissible’?

The rules I promoted earlier are:

  • Don’t hurt yourself
  • Don’t hurt another person
  • Don’t break anything
  • Seize your opportunities

I mentioned them, along with the above, in my article ‘What are points of attention in crisis management?‘.

Don’t hurt yourself

This is the first rule, because it’s all about achieving your organization’s goals. The rule is basically ‘don’t hurt yourself unless it makes you better’. So when expanding to the organization, this means ‘don’t harm your own organization unless it benefits her.’

An example of not harming yourself was Johnson & Johnson’s total recall of tylenol from the market. In doing so, the ‘damages’ and ‘benefits’ must be viewed relatively in relation to inaction, or in relation to flat opportunism, in which the market can punish an organisation mercilessly. The damage must also be considered in time, namely is the damage manageable in the beginning, and can we gain confidence? Because if you don’t, it can turn out negative. In the end, history has shown that ‘nobody is too big to fail’. Crisis management with crisis communication in situations in the past have shown that you may not be able to control everything, but you can control a lot.

Don’t hurt another person

This rule is the second one, because after all, you have to live with your neighbor. A good example was the theft of recipes for Coca Cola in order to sell it to Pepsi. However, Pepsi did not want the recipe.

This rule also has an extended version, namely, “if it does not contravene rule 1” and “unless the other or a third party benefits from it”.

In my interpretation of this rule, it is therefore best to agree on the actions to be taken. So that the other person agrees that you are (temporarily) harming him or her at that moment. An example is the fact that the medical doctor makes you sign for approval when you make a stem cell donation for the benefit of a leukemia patient. More generally, organ donation is regulated in many countries.

Don’t break anything

This rule is ‘only’ the third because it is not about living beings, but about things that may be important to yourself or others.

This rule is only valid if it does not contradict the first two rules. And this can also be expanded with an addition, namely ‘unless you can make something better with the parts’.

Sometimes nostalgia for the past is a justification for preserving something, but sometimes a total obsolescence and decay of the original is a reason to do something that does not meet the nostalgia.

Seize your opportunities

Ultimately, it’s about taking measures to counter threats or optimising opportunities. To this end, the first three rules are important to establish an ethical filter. However, the four criteria of ‘common sense’ above help to ensure that it guarantees a good approach. And that it can be legitimate. However, keep all the previous criteria in mind during the life cycle of the measure.

How can you detect that one or more of these conditions are not met?

It is clear that it is not always clear whether the criteria have been met. That is why we need an approach in which everyone agrees. To do that, there are some things you need to practice, alone or in a team.

  • Put yourself in the shoes of others.
  • Relying on the internal knowledge of the processes
  • Post SPOCs for reporting issues

I give some clarification on each of these.

Put yourself in the place of the others.

For this, you need empathy . This applies to both a 1-on-1 conversation and ‘many to many’. The first step is active listening. You do this by giving the other person full attention and not letting yourself be distracted by other things. Ask open-ended questions to clarify what you don’t understand and keep asking questions, but above all, let the others talk about their thoughts, feelings and motivations. At the same time, you try to feel what the other person feels. Try to articulate that in a post-interview summary. Ask them if you have understood correctly. This gives them opportunities to clarify, adjust or supplement what you have said.

It is important that the surveying group has no prejudices about the ideas of the surveyed group.

Relying on the internal knowledge of the processes

First, you identify the processes involved. You determine which processes are involved within your organization, and which of them are most relevant to the issue. This can involve processes related to one’s own compliance with rules and laws, one’s own reputation, but also relevance to the environment such as environmental pollution, immediate danger, employment rate for people in the area,… Also evaluate the knowledge of the employees involved in the processes. At a minimum, check the relevant knowledge of the key people. In these evaluations, determine to what extent the knowledge of the employees is correct and to what extent their experience extends.

Also implement a monitoring system for the processes. to ensure that the internal organizational criteria for the processes are met. This can consist of, for example, audits, reviews.

Document the processes and internal organizational criteria and regularly draw up a report on the state of affairs of the processes with regard to the internal criteria.

Based on this, you determine the gaps in the processes and train the employees on the criteria. You will continue to monitor this periodically so that the processes and criteria remain up-to-date and relevant in a changing context.

By following and demonstrating these steps, you increase trust in the organization. Crucial factors in this are trust, interpersonal safety and transparency.

Post SPOCs for reporting issues

Communication is the key to a good understanding of one’s own situation. All parties must be able to talk to each other. To this end, a SPOC is needed in the organization for questions from society, when they have a comment or problem. A SPOC is also needed in society for questions from the organization. These are often several, because as an organization you need one for each of the government departments involved. The latter are mostly well known.

How do you inspire trust in society if there are no laws yet that say how it is allowed and how it can be done safely?

A non-exhaustive list of ways is by taking into account the following principles:

  • Corporate Social Responsibility.
  • Measuring support before creating support
  • Openness: invite them to the risk assessments
  • Create psychological safety between organisation and society: the importance of being ‘in agreement’.

Corporate Social Responsibility.

The basic principles of corporate social responsibility (CSR) can be summarized in the Triple P bottom line: people, planet and profit.

People: This concerns human rights, working conditions (this is about e.g. wages, situation on the floor,…) and social impact by also investing in the local community.

Planet: First and foremost, this concerns the environment by saving energy, reducing (chemical) waste and working sustainably. In addition, there is an emphasis on climate change and taking actions to reduce your CO2 emissions, among other things. A third point of attention here is biodiversity.

Profit: In the first place, this concerns what a company is often started for: economic added value for all parties involved. In doing so, one must be transparent about those finances, but also about business operations. Finally, good governance also contributes to long-term profit.

Measuring support before creating

To measure support, there are the following methods:

  1. With surveys, you first decide who you want to survey from the area. From that, you determine a sub-target group. This allows you to create a form with open and closed questions about the opinion of the target group about the relevant aspects of the company. Afterwards, analyze the answers to understand them, what they care about and what they are concerned about.
  2. In interviews, you choose key people from the target group to interview. You’ll ask more in-depth open-ended questions to understand their motivation and perspectives. Afterwards, you look for patterns and themes in the results of the conversations.
  3. In focus groups, you bring together a small group of people from the target group to discuss the company. Afterward, analyze the discussion to understand what the group values and what it is concerned about.
  4. On social media, you have a general analysis to see what is being said about the venture. In doing so, one can then focus on a sentiment analysis and a theme analysis: what concerns the target group in the online discussions.
  5. Finally, there is the observation of the target group in its natural environment. In doing so, you analyze the needs and expectations.

In order to create support, you need communication to correctly inform the target group about the company, its plans and values, the stated win-win, etc. Ideally, you involve employees from the target group in order to deploy them in the development of the company. You ensure that communication is many-to-many by actively listening to their concerns and ideas. By involving employees from the target group, you promote collaboration with them by creating common goals.

In this way, you create a sustainable relationship with your stakeholders.

Openness: invite them to the risk assessments

It is an absolute obligation to check beforehand whether there are rules of the local, regional or national government to involve the stakeholders in any form of risk assessment. If you can, it’s best to involve them in the process at an early stage. In this way, you give them ownership of their input in the risk analysis and the choice of (some of) the measures. Always ensure transparent and open communication. Also tell them if something of the measures were not withheld, and why. This is another way to take stakeholder feedback seriously.

There are several ways you can use to talk to them: information evenings with communication from both parties to both parties, give the chance to ask questions and for a healthy dispute. Don’t have a discussion, just have a dispute.

A second form are workshops if you want to involve them in the identification of risks and the development of measures. This is a more intense teaching method than the first one where you already did the preparatory work.

An even more in-depth form is interviews with key people from the area to know their opinions on what the risks are and the measures that the organization could take.

More distant is the online survey to question stakeholders.

You then use among other things social media to inform stakeholders about the new process and the risks. Or you can create polls and ask questions. Make sure you always answer the questions of stakeholders.

Create psychological safety between organisation and society: the importance of being ‘in agreement’.

Be transparent and open about the risks. To this end, share all relevant information. Communicate why the initiatives are needed and what the possible consequences are for which the organization is taking measures. Make the information accessible to everyone and keep it easy to understand.

Engage in a dialogue with a dispute, not a discussion. In doing so, listen to society’s concerns. Take them seriously and adjust the measures where necessary. Keep the door open for follow-up conversations, for example when circumstances change.

Create trust based on respect for society’s values. This includes responsibility for the impact of the measures on the stakeholders. So be honest and reliable, walk the talk.

Work together with society by looking for common solutions. Distribute expertise in both directions: society also has expertise. Build relationships with the stakeholders, as this prevents possible intervention by action groups.

Keep learning about the latest developments regarding risk. Evaluate the measures and adjust them where necessary. Be open to feedback.


Technical measures against radiation

Applying the principle of proportionality in determining technical measures can be extreme when a threat must be prevented at all times, such as the radiological hazard from a nuclear power plant. In this example, there is the combination with caution, because one knows the enormous damage caused by cancers and birth defects radiation can have. Wars involving even depleted materials and nuclear disasters involving nuclear weapons tests in the 1960s and subsequent have shown this. An important work that was written in the field of radiation hazards in nuclear warfare was the book ‘On Thermonuclear War‘ by Herman Kahn.

This work showed that a nuclear war, because of the radiation hazard for many thousands of years, would cause damage to future generations, if there were any. Also to the person who uses the weapons himself, because the nuclear particles can move all over the world with the wind. So it was an ethical solution to give credence to this work, which has prevented a new nuclear war from being waged after WWII. Some insisted on seizing opportunities through peace, others did not.

Tylenol with Johnson & Johnson.

Performing a general recall of the product after complaints of fatal poisonings was a direct result of applying Johnson & Johnson’s vision, where their credo statement stated at the top that their first obligation was that towards the end user of the medication. And that end user was threatened by contamination of their product. A total recall was therefore proportionate as a measure for them, despite the expensive costs that resulted. Since it was not known how the toxins got into the jars of medication, it was also the only prudent thing to do.

But it was also efficient and effective, in the sense that it happened quickly, and the deaths stopped.

It turned out to be an ethically correct solution because Johnson & Johnson was able to regain the faith of the end users by introducing a tamper-free packaging: the strips from which the pills had to be extracted.

Conclusion: Are these criteria for common sense and ethical conduct universal?

The question is whether all of this is valid in crisis in addition to validity in ‘peacetime’.

In times of crisis, you can’t make more time to determine the most optimal working method. Nevertheless, laws and rules of thumb usually remain important preconditions that are not easily abandoned.

If, however, one notices that the laws and rules of thumb no longer apply, there is an abrupt confrontation with a new reality, which is still in full formation at the time of crisis. It is then important to stick to universal principles in order to create new laws and rules of thumb.

A rule of thumb might be ‘in war, don’t use weapons that could turn against yourself’, such as by global spread of nuclear fallout. This was revealed in Herman Kahn’s book.

A rule of thumb might be ‘don’t go for short-sighted quick gains in times of crisis, but consider protecting your target audience through a total recall of your product.’ This was demonstrated by the case of Johnson & Johnson in the case with Tylenol.

So, in my opinion, the principles discussed above are good principles.

Manu Steens

Manu works at the Flemish Government in risk management and Business Continuity Management. On this website, he shares his own opinions regarding these and related fields.

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