© 2001 G. Mark Towhey. All rights reserved. For reprint permission contact firstname.lastname@example.org
In the wake of the September 11 tragedy in the U.S., we’ve been thinking a lot about “what we can do” to make organizations more resilient to such large-scale crises. What we’ve discovered is, at once, both frightening and heartening.
The human factor
One of the first realizations that was crystallized by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center was that most corporate Business Resumption Plans, Business Continuity Plans and Crisis & Disaster Management Plans focus on the same things: bricks, mortar and technology. In other words, they focus on replacing hard assets. The forgotten ingredient is, of course, the people.
We’ve seen this phenomenon ourselves when working with clients. It is often difficult to steer crisis planning discussions around to the human factors. What if some of your employees are injured or killed in the crisis? What if, God forbid, many of your employees are incapacitated?
What if critical people are lost to your organization? What if very large numbers of people are lost? In massive disasters, natural or man-made, employees may be killed or injured. Or, they may be physically unable to rejoin your organization — as in the case of many people isolated at distant locations by the temporary grounding of the air transportation system in North America. Or, they may be psychologically unable to work productively due to crisis-induced stress?
Undoubtedly, you have a plan to replace the computers, the desks, the data and work spaces. But, do you have a plan to replace the people? Or, to protect the people you have remaining?
Three key ingredients
Any organization facing such a challenge — as many organizations are facing in the aftermath of the World Trade Centre collapse — requires three key ingredients in order to continue business after losing a number of people.
First, they need stalwart leadership. Frankly, in our experience, this ingredient is in short supply in many organizations. Sure, there may be a good leader at the top — maybe some sprinkled throughout the organization as well. But, precious few organizations have a well-considered, and effectively implemented plan to ensure they develop a strong culture of leadership. Leadership is different from management. Leadership is the art of inspiring people to want to do things that they wouldn’t normally want to do. Management is important for maintaining an effective organization. But, leadership is crucial for building, and rebuilding, effective organizations.
In the aftermath of disaster, leadership will be required to start from scratch, seize and maintain the initiative, rally and inspire the troops to pick up the pieces and start rebuilding. Nothing can happen without it.
Second, they need strong teamwork. There is endless talk of “teamwork” in the corporate and public sector worlds. Millions of dollars are spent on developing “teamwork skills” and “teambuilding.” The word itself has become trite and cliche. But, teamwork is crucial to building and rebuilding effective organizations.
In the aftermath of a disaster where people are lost, teamwork is essential to successfully rebuilding an organization. In this sense, teamwork means the ability of each member of the team to understand the team vision, mission and the roles each part of the team, including themselves, plays in achieving success. Team members must recognize work that must get done, identify gaps in the team and act on their own initiative to fill critical gaps.
Third, organizations need depth of talent. This, perhaps, is the most difficult to achieve. Imagine your own organization. Now, remove six or a dozen key players: CEO, VP Operations, Production line managers, shift supervisors, shipper/receivers, etc. How will your organization continue to function without these people? Who will replace them? Assume you will either not have time to recruit externally, or that external candidates will be unavailable. Who, inside your organization, has the skill and expertise to replace these critical people.
Is your organization structured in such a way that it is easy, or even possible, to reconfigure to scale up or down to meet rapidly changing demands? Do you have the depth of talent necessary to fill key positions from internal resources?
Backplan from the critical needs
We know that the three critical ingredients your organization will need to continue functioning after a major disaster are: leadership, teamwork and depth of talent. The critical question, then, is how can you ensure you have these ingredients on hand when the next disaster strikes you?
Every organization needs to consider that question — right now. What business practices need to change or stop in order to ensure you have these ingredients within your organization? What new practices do you need to introduce? How can you make these practices an integral part of the fabric of your company so that they do not fade away like last year’s fad diet when the news returns to talk of taxes?
We call this process “Backplanning” — starting with the desired objective and working backwards to develop an initial plan to make it happen.
These are not easy questions to answer — but it’s vitally important to the survivability of your organization that you ask them as soon as possible — and begin the process of answering them.