Pessimism is Important in Your Business Crisis Plan

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Business Continuity (BC) plans are frequently developed by teams (and if they aren’t, they should be – two people are almost always smarter than one person). When you’re assembling your BC team, you should intentionally find a solid, team-player pessimist.

No one ever has any trouble including optimists on teams – they’re out there, bright and sunny, always seeing the bright side of things and explaining how your business continuity plan is going to work and cover all the problems.Plan for disaster

At the same time, no one ever likes having a pessimist on the team because they are always looking at the down side and saying things like, “You know, the location we just chose for the backup data center is only six blocks away. (While the optimist is saying, “No problem, the risk of a flood/tornado/fire/earthquake/etc is low.”)

In any BC plan, two of the most important areas, areas that must be addressed in detail in order to succeed, are:

  • Identifying and planning to overcome the barriers to success. These are, generally, internal things that are “stacked against” the project, like disaster denial or a paucity of funding to test the IT Recovery Plan
  • Identifying and planning for the “things that keep you up at night.” These are the things that can go wrong, like the failure of a critical supplier to make schedule or concern about preparedness to respond to hostile workplace issues.

It is far too easy, without a knowledgeable and vocal pessimist, to be seduced into the optimistic perspective and fail to allocate resources and develop plans to overcome the barriers or respond to the “things that keep you up at night.” The pessimist brings these to the fore and insists on going beyond the easy, “we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it” or “that’s just not going to happen.” Too often, optimists hope while pessimists plan.

Thomas Sowell (Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University and a respected economist) has observed that an enormous number of failures in plans developed for any number of different efforts are the result of not thinking beyond the top level of effects. He calls that level 1 thinking. Dr. Sowell says that level 1 thinking ignores the effects of:

  • The ways people will actually behave that can (and will) alter the way that plans or programs are implemented. In an emergency or crisis, the inherent human tendency is to freeze up, run away or physically attack the threat (freeze, flee or fight). The only way to cut that response short is through a well developed, understood and rehearsed plan – the kind of a plan that a pessimist will compel the team to develop.
  • The ways in which the dynamics of the real world that can (and will) introduce disruptive factors into implementation of the program. Emergencies and crises don’t evolve in accordance with the plan (exhaustive studies have confirmed that emergencies and crises don’t read your BC plans). While it’s not practical or even possible to cover all contingencies, a pessimist is going to point out the weak spots in a plan and enable the team to infuse the plan with alternative responses and the flexibility in execution necessary to effectively react to unanticipated events.

Daniel Kahneman (Nobel Laureate and the developer of Prospect Theory) discusses System 1 thinking (intuitive; simple, easy and based on personal stories) and System 2 thinking (cognitive; complicated, effort-requiring and based on facts/knowledge). Dr. Kahneman has observed that people prefer to rely on System 1 thinking and that System 1 thinking often leads to incorrect decisions because the decision doesn’t address numerous and important factors – it just sounds good. Only well developed, exercised and implemented planning can avoid the pitfalls of System 1 thinking in an emergency or crisis.  

The pessimist is the antidote for the risks that Drs. Sowell and Kahneman raise.  

BC planners need to be able to leverage their pessimists to create rigorous plans that are comprehensive and flexible enough to enable effective response across the risk spectrum faced by your organization. That takes more effort than leveraging the energy and enthusiasm of the optimist, but is just as important.


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