26 Sep Planning, reality, good intentions and the road to …
Madison, Wis. In debates and teaching, it is sometimes useful to go to extremes to make a point. It’s rare that the real world resorts to such tactics, but in the last month exactly that has happened with both hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Since nobody in their right mind wants to get into a contest with Mother Nature, I’m hoping this is a teaching moment. The question, of course, is whether we as students will be bright enough to learn the right lessons.
I’ve said elsewhere that the biggest danger in failure is not that no lessons get learned. It’s that the wrong lessons get learned with great conviction. Given the great costs we’ve paid in human lives and social disruption over the last month, we can’t allow that to happen. While certainly there are cultural, political, and social lessons to be learned, there are also IT lessons to be learned. Not surprisingly, the most important lessons are very similar for all four of these areas.
If you want to get an “F” from Professor Mother Nature, your essay answer to the essay question “What I did in a crisis?” will deal extensively with deflecting blame from yourself to any and all other parties, no matter how minimal their responsibility for the final results. This main theme will be supplemented with detailed instructions for posturing, spin doctoring, and delay. Incredibly you will conclude your essay with talk of accountability and taking responsibility while omitting any clear course of action reflecting real ownership. We’ve all seen it in small ways in the work world around us. Behaving this way at work rarely results in loss of life, especially when it comes to IT. However, the lesson remains that it’s probably not the most effective way to win friends and influence people, be they folks you manage, folks who manage you, business partners, or customers.
If you want to get a “D” from the professor you’ll be able to point to at least some responses even if they are “too little, too late” and you’ll seek to justify the poor performance by describing the overwhelming and unexpected nature of the crisis. Mother Nature can be expected to deduct points if it turns out that the crisis was not unexpected but rather well anticipated. She might give you extra points if you can articulate the clear business case that was made for not investing in the required risk mitigation. Be careful though if in your priority list, you’re ranking human life lower than, say, subjugating your imagined ideological foes. Wait. Sorry. I lost focus on the IT aspects of this. From an IT perspective, to up your grade next time, you might want to begin thinking about things like risk management, leading indicators, and contingency plans in addition to the garden variety disaster planning that has become so popular lately.
If you want to get a gentleman’s “C,” you’ll need to talk about not only the expected conditions used during the planning for a crisis, but also about some early warning signs that the actual conditions were varying from the expected conditions. This foresight falls short of a higher grade because you fail to actually apply it. Dusty forecasts sitting on a shelf win only a limited number of points post-crisis. Mother Nature looks kindly on responses that supported individual heroics in the moment, even if the organizational response was less than stellar. From an IT perspective, you can self grade here by looking for and finding some kind of continuity planning that deals with the more likely threats like building fires and tornados than say terrorists and letter bombs, especially if you’re in areas of the country that have seen plenty of the former and little of the latter.
If you aspire to a “B” you’ll have to have been through a crisis and had your response actually fit the needs of the moment, not just the assumptions of the plans. Just having the best plan or even disaster simulation won’t win you enough points for this grade. When the complexity of a real crisis finds the gaps in your planning (and it always does), you’ll be able to describe how you adjusted and minimized the impact. From an IT perspective we’re talking about understanding and being apply to apply business priorities effectively, even in unexpected situations. You have a good feel for the criteria used to develop those priorities and the connections necessary to implement responses base on that understanding. The only thing that keeps you from getting an A is that it was all done on the fly and depends on the personality and presence of a given individual.
So what’s the “A+” of crisis response? It’s not that the crisis didn’t happen. It’s not that the whole response went exactly as planned. It’s comes down to understanding that planning does not dictate future reality, but rather simply begins a conversation about how to respond to what ever arises. The quality of a plan is not measured in how well it anticipates and creates some future reality, but rather in how well it prepares us to deal with the unanticipated. In handling all the anticipated issues, it frees us and our attention to address the stuff that nobody anticipates. That’s called flexibility.
In the recent hurricanes, in the massive North East blackout a couple years back, in the building of sub-divisions up into wild-fire prone areas, the failure wasn’t just in bad planning, though Lord knows there was plenty of that. The failure is in the inability of leaders to adjust from their pre-conceived idealized world of the plan into the chaotic, always just emerging moment. Why did it take Texas 22 hours to decide to reverse flow on the interstate lanes into Houston, when anybody watching CNN could see the need? Why did it take their highway folks another five hours to even start implementing it once that decision was made? Why did it take not hours, but days, days filled with hours and minutes and seconds, to recognize and respond to the mounting disaster at the New Orleans Convention Center?
I’m sure there will be lots of explanations and maybe even some future corrections presented with great conviction. But the fact remains that when the next disaster rolls through, whether it’s some geo-political dust up, the environment flexing its muscle or the just power going out at your data center, planning still won’t equal reality. If you want to move up the grading scale you need to plan for that and get people in place who can bridge the gaps.
The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.