The Case Against Preparedness

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The U.S. Coast Guard’s motto is “Semper Paratus.”  For those of you who did not take Latin from Sister Mary Attila the Hun and therefore don’t remember your Latin, that translates as “Always Prepared.” I think that’s an excellent motto and one that we should all embrace as leaders and as individuals. I suspect that most people will agree that preparedness is a good idea – until they contemplate actually preparing.  It’s the old saw about alligators and the swamp. Over the past several years, we’ve encountered a number of reasons for taking care of the urgent business of today before taking care of preparing for tomorrow. I’m going to take a look at some of those reasons – at the case against preparedness.

We’ve heard the following “reasons” from a variety of companies, organizations and institutions (I’ve arranged them in groups to facilitate discussion):

We’ve never had a crisis

  • That’s (whatever the problem or risk is) never happened to us in the past and we’ve been around a long time.
  • We are well respected.  Nobody would hurt this company.
  • We live in a safe area. Violence is not going to happen here.Disaster Denial Notebook
  • Our people are good people. Nobody would hurt anybody else.

If we have a crisis, I can handle it

  • I’ve spent my entire life learning how to lead; I know how to respond to emergencies and crises.
  • We’ve never had plans before; we don’t need them now.
  • We’re really good at solving problems, and we’ve always been able to solve problems when they arise.
  • We’re not big enough to need plans.
  • We’re too small to attract the attention of bad guys

Recovery will be easy if something happens

  • If we do have a problem, we can recover quickly.
  • We can meet our commitments – even if we have a few people out sick.

We don’t have the resources

  • I’m too busy “fighting alligators” to “drain the swamp.”
  • There is no budget for plan development.

If we have plans and don’t follow them perfectly, then we could be sued.

Let’s take a look at these groups of “reasons.”

We’ve never had a crisis – Well, good for you.  When do you plan to cease operations?  I ask that, because no matter how unlikely a risk is, if you stay in operation long enough, you will experience it – the cumulative probability gets bigger the further into the future you plan to remain in operation.  It’s very important for leaders to appreciate how cumulative probability (this is one of those courses in college that everyone hated) works.  A once-in-a-hundred year event can happen tomorrow – or it can happen in ten thousand years.  Probabilities are just that – the probability that something will happen.  A high probability doesn’t mean that something will happen any more than a low probability means it won’t happen.  Probabilities are just the way to bet.  Speaking of betting, the real indicator for investing in preparedness is not just the probability, but also the impact.  The probability of the Cascadia Fault generating an earthquake in the Northwest U.S. is pretty small – but the impact is projected to be ginormous.  Some of the seismologists are saying that all connections (road, rail, air, sea) could be shut down for weeks or even longer.  That’s a serious impact, and the reason that Washington state is worried about the Cascadia Fault – so worried that they are even starting to invest in preparedness.

If we have a crisis, I can handle it – I’m genuinely impressed.  When was the last time you actually faced a crisis and responded to it capably and as effectively as possible?  Personal defense experts will tell you that you’re only about a third as good in a real defense situation as you are in practice – and if you’ve never practiced, you might as well “fuggetaboutit”  All of the psychological research emphasizes that humans (which normally includes leaders) respond to an emergency or crisis in one of three ways – we freeze, we flee or we fight.  Every single human being on the face of the planet will respond that way in the beginning of a threatening event.  The best and fastest way out of that genetically compelled, stone-age response is to have a plan and to have practiced it (there is nothing magic about that plan that you have holding down your bookcase but that you’ve never looked at).  No matter how much leadership experience you have, you need that plan and you need to practice it.  I’ve flown with some genuinely incredibly expert pilots and they all knew and continued to practice emergency procedures – there’s nothing quite like shutting down the wrong engine in an emergency because you haven’t practiced.  It gets real quiet in the cockpit when the motors aren’t running (we call propellers pilot-cooling devices because the pilot really starts sweating when those propellers stop turning).  This applies whether you’re an international mega-organization or even a one-person shop in your parents’ garage.  Sure, it’s easier to have situational awareness in small organizations, but that doesn’t mean that you aren’t going to freeze up when faced with a crisis that you are prepared for.

Recovery will be easy if something happens – Maybe so, but (going back to that probability/betting thing) how do you know?  If the crisis is a leak in the roof, it’s probably going to be pretty simple to get back into business-as-usual operation, but if the leak drips onto your brass-board power supply and fries your entire (and only) prototype the morning before the venture capitalists want a demo, who ya gonna call (Ghostbusters are booked solid)?  You need to have developed a plan (which, in this case, should have included ways to prevent your prototype from being at risk from that leaky old roof.  While you can’t ever be sure that recovery will be easy, you can be sure that a well thought out and practiced plan will make it easier than trying to drain that recovery swamp while the alligator has you by the ankle.

We don’t have the resources – What else is new?  No one has the resources just sitting around in their bottom desk drawer – not GM, not IBM, not Google.  They all have their resources fully allocated.  Leading an organization means establishing priorities.  Going back to my earlier question about when you plan to cease operations – if you plan on staying in operation “forever,” then your cumulative resources are enormous (even a couple of hundred dollars a year adds up when you stay around “forever”).  Similarly, your cumulative risk, looking out to “forever” is huge.  So, as a leader, dust off that old probability and statistics textbook, figure out your risk profile and establish your priorities.  That will help to tell you where to put your resources.  Remember Aesop’s grasshopper – in the real story, the ants let the lazy #@%&* starve, because he didn’t prepare for winter (a risk with both a high probability and a high impact).

If we have plans and don’t follow them perfectly, then we could be sued This is actually not uncommon.  Actually, you could be sued, but even worse, you could get pilloried in a viral rant on Facebook or Twitter.  You may smile, but social media can have an even more devastating impact on your organization than a lawsuit.  Recall the recent social-media-published videos showing United Airlines in less than flattering behavior.  The cost of the settlement was a tiny fraction of the reputational cost to United.  Getting back to the lawsuit, a good attorney (or even an ambulance chaser) will make the point that “you should have…”  In fact, I heard on the news just last week, “They should have known…”  Law courts (and particularly juries) have been finding that organizations have been at fault when the judge or jury decides that an injury occurred and “something could have been done.”  Think about that – I’ll assert that you’re far better off to be criticized for an imperfect execution of your plan than for ignoring preparedness completely.

The bottom line here is that there may be excuses for failing to prepare, but there are no valid rationales.  I recently stumbled over a quote from Edward Everett Hale, “Because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”  I think that is a good way to look at preparedness in the face of the constant urgency of conducting business as usual.  While I may not be able to fully prepare by lunchtime tomorrow, I can figure out what I can do and then do that.  When leaders take that approach, organizations get more prepared and become far more resilient.


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