“It seems to me that everything that happens to us is a disconcerting mix of choice and contingency.” — Dame Penelope Lively, British author.
On the morning of February 15, 2013, a fireball ripped through the sky above the Russian city of Chelyabinsk, exploding 18 miles up after leaving a streak of fire tens of miles long. The minor asteroid, which was about the size of an apartment building, was actually the second to have visited the Siberian region in a little over a century: 1908’s Tunguska meteor, which was about the same size, fortunately fell to Earth in an uninhabited wilderness, blowing down and charring 800 square miles of timber.
The people of Chelyabinsk were lucky, because the meteor entered the atmosphere at a shallow angle. According to modeling done by Dr. Mark Boslough of Sandia National Laboratories, if it had come straight in, the city would have been devastated. Though the shockwave broke windows throughout the city and 1,200 people were injured by flying glass, no one died—and the city was back up and running in a matter of hours. Both basic and emergency services, while overloaded, remained functional.
Why? Because the leaders of Chelyabinsk, both civic and business, had contingency plans in place for every occurrence they could think of. No one expected a replay of Tunguska, but when it happened, they were able to modify an existing disaster plan and respond quickly and efficiently.
Your Own Chelyabinsk
Where do you stand on the contingency front? If you work for a large organization, your company almost certainly has something in place for just about everything that might reasonably occur, from floods and fires taking out your office space to hackers invading your computer networks and violating your data integrity (think Ebay and Target). If your organization is smaller, new, or just lacks a complete suite of contingency plans, try these suggestions to get up to speed.
1. Do your homework. As a team leader, you should have access to your organization’s contingency plans, assuming they exist. If they do, review them thoroughly, adapting them for your team’s use. If something seems to be missing, don’t hesitate to fill the gap. If you have no contingency plans, then create some. If you or your team lack the time for contingency planning, or have no idea where to start, pay someone to either advise you on the topic, create the plans you need, or both. Crisis consultants are easy to find and will be worth the cost if something goes south. Research the possibilities, and don’t forget to tap the knowledge of your experienced team members. What will happen to the data on your computer if you have a fire? What will happen if your most valuable team member leaves? What if you get hit by a Mack truck? What if a disaster puts you in the hospital at the onset of the emergency? What if things fall apart while you’re vacationing?
2. Avoid perfectionism. Even though it’s actually happened, if you find yourself planning for what to do in the event of a meteor explosion over your city, you’ve gone too far. Good enough really is good enough when it comes to contingency plans. Make them detailed enough to take care of your business and save your people—physically or fiscally, as the circumstances require—but leave them rough enough to apply to a wide variety of circumstances. Once you have a disaster plan, data protection, and contingencies for social unrest, war, and unexpected deaths in place, go on to other tasks, checking in only occasionally to ensure your plans remain viable. You can even hand the task over to a specific individual who takes care of your contingency plans as part of their job responsibilities.
3. Train. Until Captain Chesley Sullenberger successfully landed his commuter plane in the Hudson River in 2009, after hitting a flock of geese and losing his engines at 3,000 feet, the consensus was that an airline pilot couldn’t ditch in water without fatalities. Sullenberger saved the lives of all 155 passengers aboard. He probably never expected to have to land on a river, but his training prepared him for the eventuality. Your team also needs to understand and practice your contingency plans, just so they know how to respond when something goes awry. (Think 2nd grade fire drills.) Once you have your contingency plans in place, don’t keep them to yourself. Give everyone copies and have them study them. Your trusted subordinates must be able to access the plans to get or keep the business up and running. Our office manager keeps a “white notebook” with all office procedures, so if something happens to her, I can get a temp to fill in at a moment’s notice.
4. Protect your data. Data has become one of our most valuable assets in most white collar organizations. Your IT personnel no doubt back up everything on the company system daily, and may use both external disk and offsite cloud storage to do so. But it’s a good idea for you to back up your own workstation at least twice a week (I backup to an external disk drive), and to have your team members do the same. Recent versions of Microsoft Windows allow you to easily make backups of your hard drive and to create basic restore points that let you recover data if it becomes corrupted. Keep some copies off-site in a safe deposit box and/or in the cloud, just in case your office suffers a physical disaster. If you have a priceless customer contact list, treat it the same as the rest of your data. I keep a physical and electronic copy in a fireproof safe, just in case.
No one wants to deal with emergencies, but they happen anyway. Every business faces problems that, without contingency plans in place, might overwhelm it. You have to have something ready for the day when Hurricane Qubert blows in, taking your office with it. You never know what tomorrow will bring. One thing you do know is that someday, one tomorrow will bring a nasty surprise that, if you fail to prepare for it, you should be prepared to fail.