Sunday, 23 February 2014

A Challenging Exercise in Crisis

I was recently watching the Sochi Winter Olympic Games and hasn’t it been amazing? The speed and adrenaline of the race and jump events are enough to raise the blood pressure of the calmest person! These finely tuned athletes from around the world dedicate years of their life training day after day as they try to maximise their performance and it got me thinking...

Everybody knows the age-old saying “practice makes perfect”. The idea being that you can become progressively better at something the more times you do it. This certainly is the case with Business Continuity. If we anticipate an issue or problem before it occurs and we practice how to fix it in advance of it happening then we can reduce the overall impact or even prevent it happening in the first place...but in my experience I’d have to say it’s not as simple as that.

How do you practice responding to an incident that can be caused by any number of different reasons, at any time, and may also result in different impacts occurring depending on its magnitude? The truth is we couldn’t possibly prepare and practice our response for every conceivable business disruption even if we trained until the next Olympics! We have to be generally prepared for everything!

A key part of what we do in business continuity is undertaking / facilitating what we call “Exercises” and I don’t mean aerobics classes...

Generally speaking, these exercises usually relate to a Business Continuity Professional posing some semi-realistic scenario to managers to see how they’d react (the methods, themes and approaches to how this is done vary greatly but that’s an entirely separate article!) We do this so we can be sure that everyone involved in our planned response is 100% comfortable with what might happen but more importantly what might be expected from them.

As a Business Continuity Professional, I regularly see participants nervously walk into our training rooms, desperately clutching on to their latest plans. More often than not having dusted off its cobwebs and studied it intensely in the preceding 30 minutes over a morning coffee. There is definitely something in the prospect of participating in your first ever exercise that seems to bring about a sense of dread for those employees who have never tried it before.

So why dread the prospect? Well in my experience an exercise is generally perceived by many as an uncomfortable experience to go through (at least beforehand) and naturally some individuals can become defensive in the run up. I wanted to share some of the reactions to impending exercises that I have been faced with in recent years. I’m sure for those of you who work in the industry you might be able to relate to some of the following:

Disclaimer: These rare and occasional examples relate to a collection of reactions from several years in different sectors but worth taking in to consideration.

The “I’m far too busy” get out clause...

This is one of the most regular reactions I get. A prospective participant will take time to make a phone call or visit me in person and is often accompanied with a list other seemingly more important duties to fulfil. I tell you now that I could have booked the event as far as 18 months in advance and at least one of the participants try this one. Although I recently witnessed a senior BC colleague in a similar situation as described and they simply sat there and let the manager list the other pressing matters until they eventually ran out and then responded with “See you on Friday – Looking forward to it”...sure enough they turned up.

Befriended for Detail

In my experience, some participants will suddenly become more communicative in the run up to an exercise in a bid to obtain the finer details of a scenario to avoid any shocks. My advice: You are only devaluing the experience by helping your colleagues out with insider tips. Stay tight lipped!

Divide and Conquer

The tactic here is usually deployed on the day of the exercise and the aim is for the participant to slam the credibility of the exercise to reduce the potential of them potentially looking foolish. This can range from commenting on how unorganised the event is or how unrealistic the scenario is by claiming it falls in to the “realms of fantasy”. My advice is to be as organised as possible, get the pre-training done, have the handouts printed and organised for the day, brief the observers, practice your material. Simple tips but in the rush you’d be surprised how many of those can be jumped on.

The Silent Last Minute Drop Outs...

These people confirm their attendance immediately with no subsequent dialogue until the event and then on the day they will decline with apologies. The secret here is obvious, a higher level of engagement with participants. I have challenged these types in the past for their absence but their ace card was always “well I wasn’t really briefed so I didn’t realise how important it was”. It’s good to talk!

The Hierarchy Check Mate

Ultimately there is very little you can do if a rather relieved looking participant approaches you before an exercise and explains they’ve been pulled away for some other critical piece of work by a very senior executive. I’ve found the best course of action here is to be supportive and understanding but try to move fast to reschedule or arrange a follow up if at all possible.

There are others but I think you get the picture.

The Good News

I’d say in the main, most participants are quite up for the experience. This is because an exercise can be an extremely positive learning experience from which the organisation can receive a wealth of benefits:

1. Improved confidence in those responsible for managing in a crisis

2. Removal of assumptions and myths to how we respond e.g. “I always thought IT did that” etc

3. Increased familiarity with a crisis environment - A unique exposure to a crisis situation created by subject matter experts with experience of virtually hundreds of different incidents

4. Improved performance and documented procedure

5. A more effective response to a crisis

In my team we deliver an annual exercise programme to ensure that our key staff (or athletes whichever you prefer) are prepared for the heightened pace of a crisis, the stressful rapid assimilation of data and the intense decision making processes. Much like our representatives in Sochi, we train our management team to think fast and make controlled decisions and actions with great effect. We typically achieve this through creating a highly realistic crisis environment where employees can gain exposure but in the safety of a training scenario. An intense, tiring and often uncomfortable but extremely enjoyable experience as many a senior manager will attest to. But be prepared to understand why participants are often reluctant to participate and be ready to support them through the process.

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