Left of X

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Editor’s note: We are pleased to share an excellent piece by Firestorm Principal Guy Higgins. Guy’s keen insights into planning for crisis and leadership combined with his eloquent writing style make this article not only enlightening, but a pleasure to read.

Archer drawing back arrow in bow against red and yellow skyA long time ago, in the old days, when I was actively involved in considering things like ship defense systems, we would talk about the two options that existed to respond to an attack. You could “shoot the arrow,” or you could “shoot the archer.” In general, shooting the arrow is a hard thing – they’re small, hard to see and they move fast. Archers, on the other hand are easier to see, slower and easier to hit. The problem, of course is that you don’t always know if the archer is a bad guy until it’s too late and you wind up having to shoot the arrow.

I think that there is a lot of parallelism between leading an organization and defending a ship (or tank, or outpost or whatever). In both cases, you need to be prepared for unwanted situations (those would be the bad-guy archer). If you have good situational awareness and can “shoot the archer,” you can greatly reduce your risk, simplify the problem and limit any damage. Those are good things. Back to those old days, when we talked about being able to shoot the archer, we also talked about operating “left of X” where “X” was the point at which the archer shot his arrow at you. For an organizational leader, that’s the equivalent of being able to take preventative or mitigating action before a crisis erupts.

In some cases, it’s relatively easy to act before the crisis – say in getting ready before a hurricane hits. You’ve got the National Hurricane Center, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Weather Channel, and your local media all giving you information on the progress of the hurricane. You have good situational awareness and can plan – days in advance – what to do and what the triggers are to take that pre-planned action.

What about other bad situations like workplace violence? The federal government receives over 2,000,000 reports of workplace violence every year. That number includes a wide range of situations, behaviors and events, from hostile workplace through bullying to threats and actual physical assaults. That number is also under-reported.

As an organizational leader, can you act “left of X” to mitigate or even prevent an incident? The answer is, “Yes, you can.” As with any preparedness planning, it involves three categories of activities:

  • Predicting – what kinds of workplace violence are you at risk of (or alternatively, of what kinds of workplace violence are you at risk)? If your organization operates 24/7 and deals in cash transactions, you’re more vulnerable to robbery and physical assault than if you are the Mother Superior of a convent. Understanding your risk of workplace violence is incredibly important, because that understanding forms the basis of achieving and maintaining situational awareness – what’s happenin’ now?
  • Planning – what are you going to do to reduce the risk of violence, to avoid it whenever possible and mitigate the impacts if it actually occurs? This planning should involve your stakeholders (employees, vendors [if they visit your location], families, students [for schools], Human Resources, Security, and (of course) leadership. It also must include how you will achieve that foundational situational awareness. When I was worrying about ship defense, we talked about sensors and data flows, Common Operating Pictures (COPs), data deconfliction and information integration. Frighteningly enough, those same considerations need to be part of your planning efforts (and I’ll come back to that)
  • Performing – this is not only about how well practiced your team is when responding to an incident, but also in how well your entire organization responds to events and activities “left of X.” How well do they contribute to achieving and maintaining that crucial situational awareness?

Let’s talk about that situational awareness (SA). Your organization has various resources for creating and maintaining SA. You have your people – they can (and should be educated to) report circumstances, events or behaviors that are unusual and may presage a workplace violence event. You also have traditional media – newspapers, TV, and radio. In addition, for the past several years, you have had access to a virtual tsunami of data from social media sites. Data and information from all of these sources can and should be brought together to create and maintain your SA. To do that, you need some kind of central place to put all of the data and information – call it a central repository.

Once your workforce understands the importance of reporting behaviors or events of concern, they need to have some kind of capability to do that reporting – anything from an app like the Colorado Safe2Tell app for schools to a simple, old-fashioned “suggestion” box.

Finally, there comes the issue of social media. Social media is an intriguing phenomenon:

  • It is both public and private. You cannot, without violating privacy laws, access private social media posts, which would seem to limit its use, but an enormous amount of useful data is posted on public sites. This information from public sites is available to you.
  • The simple scale of social media information posting is daunting. No person or persons (or even the vast resources of a nation state) can manually review and sift through all the social media streams.
  • That means that you need tools to monitor social media – fortunately, those tools exist and are available to the public. They range from Google Alerts to incredibly sophisticated toolsets based on nation state intelligence tools. While Google Alerts (at the low end of performance) is useful for the functions for which it was designed, it and similar tools are totally inadequate for monitoring social media for indications of behaviors of concern.
  • You also need people with expertise in using the tools – in the context within which you operate. Just like a great basketball player is unlikely to succeed in major league baseball (thank you Michael Jordan), a highly skilled IT (or HR or marketing) person won’t necessarily have the right skills and experience to succeed as a social media analyst.

All of that means that you need to either create a significant internal capability with sufficient resources or you need to outsource the monitoring activity to someone for whom that is a core business. Either way, the results of social media monitoring need to be analyzed to understand if they warrant immediate action, further analysis or simple archiving and they need to go into your central repository. SA is not just about the current situation but is also about the history over time of behaviors. Current behavior needs to be assessed in light of past behavior to provide an accurate assessment of future risk.

All of this is “left of X” activity, and it is very important in preventing and mitigating the impact of any workplace violence – not only armed intruders or lethal attacks, but also hostile workplace, bullying, threats and other manifestations of workplace violence. So unlike may operational disruptions where most of the effort is in responding, workplace violence preparedness efforts are largely focused “left of x” – on avoiding, preventing, and mitigating the event, not just responding to it.

Guy Higgins Firestorm Principal

Guy Higgins
Firestorm Principal

So, as oxymoronic as it may sound, the key to preparedness for workplace violence is to “shoot the archer” not wait until you have to “shoot the arrow.”

Guy Higgins is an engineer by education, a technologist by avocation and a problem-solving leader, Guy is widely recognized for his ability to quickly see to the crux of an issue and to focus on a solution. Guy has solved problems in stable operations, in times of crisis, and for the long term. “The primary focus has to be on a viable solution – before technology, or processes or tools are considered. It’s all about solving the problem – as quickly as possible, while keeping a long range perspective.”

Guy traffics in ideas and thinks that every valuable idea must fit into the real world – how the world is and how it works. A life-long learner, he reads voluminously and eclectically and continually updates his “mental model” of the world. His ability to understand the world today – and how it is evolving – enhances his ability to contribute to useful and executable solutions. Contact Guy

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