Sunday, 19 January 2014

A Business Continuity Incident: What to expect when you're expecting...

I remember a few years ago, sat at my desk in my new business continuity job, wondering what to expect when things turned in to a crisis having never fully experienced anything like it before. At that point in my life, this is all that I had to go on:

The Books: My University days were quite helpful. The current raft of literature out there provided me with a variety of approaches in dealing with an incident, which gave me some confidence...but as we all know what’s written compared to reality can be quite different!

The Vague “Incident” Anecdotes: The less helpful comments of experienced peers and colleagues, who filled me with tales of “just how bad it was last time” but without giving me definitive answers as to what actually happened, only made me more nervous!

I mean with a touch of common sense you can quite easily assume a few things...longer hours, faster pace and more stress. Am I right?

The Challenge

The other day it hit me after chatting with an old trainee who replaced me in a previous role. They told me they’d quite like to be involved in an incident so they could get some experience under their belt. I think there exact words were...

“I don’t mean anything huge... just a small incident that occurs when I’m around to help so I can get some more experience”

Now I happen to know that this colleague has been working in the business for nearly 2 years already...and still no real exposure???

This presented a couple issues about professional development and exposure to me that I could definitely relate to:

1) In the shadow of credibility: like my colleague, every time an incident occurred, one of my more capable team members would rush to the rescue of senior managers and I would maybe print something or make coffee just to be helpful.

This one time we had 3 incident responders and a team manager (including me) sat at our desks when all of a sudden our building suffered a major power outage. Every manager naturally migrated to our department at speed but rather interestingly upon arriving they all went to the same guy for help while the other 3 of us sat there quite redundantly...

My point being is it’s largely about trust and (apparent) credibility in this game. The challenge for a new starter is that it takes time to get that experience so you have to be patient. You could spend 2 years in this industry without ever being fully being exposed to an incident role because the guy next to you is just so good at it!

2) Awareness and Expectation: What exactly happens during an incident? What will it be like? Will I mess up? Is it hard? Will people shout? Questions, Questions, Questions...And to make things worse, I never really received any answers.

Sure you get taught and told what do before and during an incident. But the truth my first few years I NEVER once had a conversation with anyone (or read anywhere for that matter) about what an incident would actually feel and look like when it occurred. That’s not to say that it’s not out there but it certainly wasn’t put in front of me.

It became quite clear to me that as a baby in the industry, the only way I was going to fully appreciate what was coming was to be fully involved in an incident when it occurred.

Having spent the last few weeks discussing this at length with peers and colleagues, I highly suspect there are other business continuity junior professionals out there sat at their desks wondering what its like to be involved, just waiting for their chance.

I’m hoping to try and fill that gap for all those new guys and girls in the industry with a few honest accounts of things I encountered during my first few years. I hope they help!

The Incident

The nature of a business continuity incident for a newcomer can be quite the baptism of fire. Of course, the training and books will give you the knowledge of tried and tested response structures but that alone won’t totally prepare you.

Unfortunately, there’s no real blue print for what to expect given the sheer number of variables you could potentially encounter. I've identified at least 6 key variables you need to be aware of:

1. Scale – an incident could be isolated to a service or a function, widespread or even fragmented across the never know until it occurs...

2. Impact/s – the array of possible impacts and when they might manifest is unpredictable and complex (an article in itself no doubt!).

3. Timing – an incident can occur at any time - whether it’s in or out of operational hours or during a business-critical period of time (and seldom happens when you expect it to!)

4. Duration – contrary to popular belief, an incident does not always occur in a fixed period of time with a definitive start and end point. A repeat incident can occur weeks and months apart so don't celebrate success too early!

5. Location - most businesses operate across multiple sites so odds on you could be helping to fix an issue for a completely different location!

6. Notice – something could occur completely out of the blue or you could see something on the horizon (commonly referred to as a “rising tide” incident) both requiring a different pace and approach to respond.

While being aware of these variables is useful… they will mainly occur without your control anyway. The most interesting thing I find is the way individuals and teams respond (sometimes almost completely differently to how they would normally act in BAU).

I have compiled a few personal observations from the incidents I have witnessed or been involved in over the last few years to give you an idea of some of the things you might encounter:

Leadership Assumptions

Avoid complacency when working with senior managers. Yes they are experienced and make big decisions on a daily basis BUT you will quickly find that there are those who need you as their comfort blanket. Even if it’s just supplying the coffee or keeping them well briefed, or even making a suggestion based on your experience. I once saw a finance director of a very large organisation sit like a quivering wreck as they operated out with their routine position during an incident. I made a poor assumption that they were totally capable of the pace, additional stress and crippling responsibility and mistakenly left them to it…

They are human after all and I believe that it’s part of our role to support them in every way we can.

Brevity is Key

I cannot tell you how many managers taking part in a teleconference or a crisis meeting that I have encountered that simply want to share every….last…detail. Whether it’s a desire for collaborative working by sharing maximum detail or even if it’s because they like the sound of their own voice I’m not sure. It is our responsibility to assist in maintaining a structure that draws out the key points from stakeholders/representatives during a meeting. A meeting I once attended which was initially marked in to take 15 minutes merged in to its second hour while a head of department discussed at length call volume forecasting. Most people made their excuses and left and it totally devalued the management process – avoid at all costs!

Too Many Cooks

I’m sure this is common knowledge to most professionals in most businesses but just in case…

I’m amazed by how many mangers require an entourage during an incident. I remember being an observer for an exercise a few years ago where one director bought in so many “vital managers” to the management team meeting that we had to set up 3 separate response rooms!

Also on a crisis teleconference I once had over 30 senior personnel on the call when I had only invited 6. I realise some literature out there does mention having the right people at the right place but there is a threshold that goes beyond manageable. My advice to you is to keep it to critical representation and drive that point home!


I will be the first to admit that this list of observations and experiences are by no means exhaustive and you may have a different perspective but looking back I would have valued an honest account like this so I wasn’t such a deer in the headlights when an incident occurred.

I hope it helps! And please feel free to share or disagree below if you’d like.

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