Saturday, November 9, 2013

A Plan That Works???

It’s a great scene: Dan Aykroyd, Bill Murray and Harold Ramis in the basement of a large library, stalking a ghost, and Dan Aykroyd yells: “Get Her!”  They rush the ghost, the ghost flares up at them, and then we next see the three of them running out of the building.  Later, as they sit on the steps of the university Bill Murray turns to Dan Aykroyd and says: “That was your plan?  ‘Get Her?’”

Unfortunately, that is in fact about how involved are many of the plans we bump into on a daily basis.  I was reminded of this just the other day: I was talking to someone – a trusted and competent observer – about the plans of several state agencies and the associated companies – multi-billion dollar firms - that work with them.

The state in question is large, heavily populated and has access to the most competent business and university minds of the nation or the world.  The agencies, which are responsible for electric power monitoring and public safety, as well as crisis response, have a fairly long record of fair to poor response to major crises.   (I would say miserable record, but I am trying to be charitable.) The companies involved have an equally fair to poor record in sustaining the providing of power to their customers during various crises and contingencies.

And all have plans.

Ask them and they will tell you: “We have crisis response plans for extreme heat, for extreme cold, for flooding, for fire damage, for hurricanes, for tornadoes, for terror attacks.  We have multiple ‘continuity of operations plans.’  We have support plans to assist in neighboring power grids as well as in neighboring states.  And we have top executives who were paid to produce the plans, and others who will monitor the plans.  Some of these folks also have ‘Ops Centers’ and ‘Crisis Response Teams’ and all sorts of neat – and expensive - ‘toys’ that they drag out whenever there is any sign of a crisis.

And yet every time there is a good-sized storm, or some other unusual – but not unprecedented – event, they step all over themselves and the people they are supposed to support suffer for it.  Here’s why:

The plans stink.  And the ‘leadership’ is not equipped – either through experience or training – to deal with the crisis.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend several weeks – working with a small group of friends – training a particular military organization to respond to various crises.  This small team has been working together providing this training for 5 years, but also, everyone has several decades of experience responding to crises, and training to respond to crises.  And, we have all, in one form or another, worked with various civilian organizations in the preparing of plans, as well as the training and mentoring of leadership teams to respond properly in a crisis.  Several points stand out:

Even working with the organization we work with – and have for the past 5 years – which is arguably the best organization in the Department of Defense in response to crises and unusual developments, mistakes are made.  Top people, literally the very best, make mistakes – at every level.  From the senior leadership down to the newest guy (and all already have years of experience and training), mistakes are made.  Over time plans are made that can account for ‘error rates,’ and the leadership is trained to recognize mistakes early, as they are happening, and correct them before things ‘go south.’  But it requires hard work, good mentoring, training and exercises.

Crisis leadership, more accurately, good crisis leadership requires good leadership and lots of experience.  No one handles a crisis well the first half-dozen times.  And experience is of essentially no value without a structured approach to analyzing each crisis after the fact and drawing from it the appropriate ‘lessons learned.’

Creating good crisis and continuity of operations plans are ‘non-trivial’ events.  Everyone thinks they can, but history, even very recent history, shows this to be false.  FEMA’s performance in Super Storm Sandy was in many ways a replay of their performance in Hurricane Katrina, and arguably worse, as there was better warning and the region hit had more possible flexibility in the response.  That FEMA is, in fact, a crisis response organization makes FEMA’s actual response a textbook demonstration of just how difficult this is.

Good plans without a vigorous exercise program are as valuable as the exercise bike that is never used.  Plans need to be practiced: to find mistakes, train people, identify new and better options, and to train and condition watch teams and the leadership.

Few if any companies, or public service organizations or the like, can afford as vigorous and thorough a training and exercise program as the military.  But they can benefit from even a limited planning, training and exercise program, if overseen by the right people.  Private corporations and organizations such as utility companies, and specifically the leadership of these organizations, should take some time to find some people who have the experience in leadership, planning, training, and exercise generation and spend the time to develop meaningful crisis response capabilities.  It will seem expensive – most particularly in the amount of time that you will need to commit to training and exercises (hiring the consultants will be relatively insignificant), but it will be paid back when you have a real crisis and find you have a plan that really can be implemented, and really works.


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