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Disasters seem all around us nowadays. Not a day goes by without some sort of disaster or terrorist attack occurring somewhere in the world filling the news. The New York Times on July 21, 2015, ran an article on a study from the Norwegian Refugee Council. The Refugee Council reported that natural disasters had forced more than 19 million people from their homes in 2014, mostly the result of typhoons, flooding, and other weather-related events. Vast swaths of America are on fire this year. There are currently about 95 large fires active across 10 states — but this year is no anomaly. The number of wildfires touching more than 50,000 acres has been increasing over the last 30 years, and the total acreage burned this decade is more than double the area burned in the 1990s. This year is on track to set a 30-year record for wildfires. Furthermore the Insurance Information Institute reports that in the first half of 2015 there were 80 disaster events resulting in 154 fatalities.

The issue for organizations is how to survive the chaos. As Charles Darwin once said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.”

The core principle of the business continuity industry is that an educated expert(s) holds the information about how to manage the chaos caused by the disaster and evolve intact on the other side. That person writes the plan which holds the key to success.

What do you do when the disaster doesn’t fit into the plan? The disaster is the worst-case event no one wanted to even talk because they thought it would never happen about much less plan for?

A relatively new school of thought for how to answer disasters has evolved around the word “resilience.” Scores of articles and videos over the past 5 or 10 years have been published in various journals. The FEMA strategic plan uses the word many times throughout the document. What is resilience? How do I get some of that? Where is it sold? Will it run on my organizational computers? I am sure many and myself asked what resilience is.

The first place to look at it is in definitions. Psychology Today offers a great definition of resilience. I have paraphrased the following paragraph for our purposes by replacing individual references with the word “organizations.”

 “That ineffable quality that allows some [organizations] to be knocked down by life and come back stronger than ever. Rather than letting failure overcome them and drain their resolve, they find a way to rise from the ashes. Psychologists have identified some of the factors that make [organizations] resilient, among them a positive attitude, optimism, the ability to regulate emotions, and the ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback. Even after misfortune, resilient [organizations] are blessed with such an outlook that they are able to change course and soldier on.”

What does that mean in real terms? The current trend is for organizations to hire a business continuity manager or department to take care of it all. They create plans that are meant to keep an organization functioning after disruptive events such as natural disasters, terrorism, crime, and computer and human error. These plans are very detailed and look like the phone book or doorstop. They talk about all the right things: who succeeds whom, where to go after your office evaporates, where the files are, and all that. These great plans provide answers to all the issues you ever thought you might need to know in any hypothetical scenario imaginable or on record.

Those plans work if your disaster follows the plan. Recently, that has been a problem. The abnormal or once-a-career events seem more common than ever. Communities are seeing things they would have never thought possible. The examples are all around us – the vast number of fires in Washington, Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, and the Japanese Tsunami of 2011 to name a few.

In his book “The Black Swan, The Impact of the Highly Improbably,” Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about the fallacy of hoping that disasters follow your plan. Past disaster planning efforts focused on writing plans that dealt with the most probable. What do you do if the disaster isn’t the most probable but the most unlikely? Unfortunately “unlikely” tends to be the most destructive. You must strive to build organizations that are resilient to survive.

Magee1How do you do that? Do you write bigger plans to account for every little thing that may happen? If you do that it will take a truck to move your disaster plan.

How can an organization build a team, group, company, agency to do that, and complete a mission with today’s tight budgets?

First, one has to recognize the near impossibility to predict the future. The future has so many possibilities it would be nearly impossible to accurately predict what the mid- to long-term future may hold. One only has to look at the game of chess as an example. The game is thought to be more than 1,000 years old. There are more than 9 million different possible positions after three successive moves by two players. There are more than 288 billion different possible positions after four moves each. The possible permutations go up from there. Real life is at least as complex as chess, if not more.

The answer is to make the whole organization resilient, not just the expert(s). You have to empower the whole organization. To do that I would borrow from Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s book “Team of Teams.” You have to set up new rules that allow the power of small teams to flourish in disasters with the inherent strength of the larger organization still there. It is centralized planning with decentralized execution.

The book is about how McChrystal changed Joint Special Operations Command procedures in Iraq in 2004. He realized the decision cycle of a large organization like his took too long. By the time things were run through the standard bureaucratic hoops to get approval and resources the situation would change. Al Qaeda would have adapted and moved on. That would force them to start their decision process all over again. Al Qaeda in Iraq was a decentralized network that could move quicker, strike ruthlessly, and then seemingly vanish into the local population. The American Army had a huge advantage in numbers, equipment, and training over this ragtag group, but it was losing. It was like the US Army was “Goliath” and Al Qaeda was “David.”

We all know what happened to Goliath.

Something had to change. McChrystal changed how his organization operated. Groups were empowered to act on their own. They knew the commander’s intent. They tore down organizational silos to allow for easy flow of information. They tried to build a flat organization. Information from a raid was picked up and immediately dumped into the system for other’s use.    

The new key to success in disasters is building a team mirroring McChrystal’s. Teams have to be automatically empowered to act under certain parameters. Sub-teams will have the ability to act on their own. The smaller groups have quicker decision cycles. It is easier to experiment with smaller teams. The teams would be driven to share what they learn. Thus the whole group learns and reaps the benefits.

How does one do that in one executive heart attack or less? There are four steps to radically change things and set your organization up for success. The four steps are change the organizational mindset, build redundancy for critical parts and systems, pass out the tools all across the breadth of the organization, and implement a proper exercise/drill program to cement the knowledge into your workforce.

The first critical step is to change the mindset of your organization. Continuity and emergency response has to stop being just the expert’s work but everyone’s problem all across the organization. Everyone has to have a role and own their own little part of the mission. Leadership has to sign onto the idea in a very big way or it all is dead on arrival. They must support this in word and deed in everything. Leadership must open communication channels up and down the organization and encourage left and right throughout.

The organizational strategic mission needs to be understood by everyone. Mission statements and strategic plans can’t be just something the consultants do. All team members need to understand what their role is. All team members must be empowered to accomplish their part of the vision at all times, even during emergencies. The perfect end goal in an emergency is to have various teams automatically start doing preset drills relating to their day-to-day mission. Employees must feel comfortable to do whatever necessary to accomplish their mission. That will mean some risk by management. All have to understand that growth and education take time but promises great payoff at the end.

The second part of the equation is redundancy and decentralization of the whole organizational infrastructure. Critical components can’t be exclusively located in high-risk places. It has never been easier to do that. Cloud computing makes it easier to push systems, programs, and records away from your physical location. That goes beyond physical things. Are certain critical skills, not only continuity skills, equally spread out across the team? What would you do if a certain person is out sick? Will that task still get none? Is there more than one person who can make critical actions for your team?

Intent gets people only so far. Organizations need to have the proper tools to operate even if the building ceases to exist. Can your workers do their job if the building disappears? Certain tools help you do that. Telework has spread radically in the past few years. Telecommuting has risen an estimated 79 percent between 2005 and 2012 and now makes up 2.6 percent of the American workforce or 3.2 million workers, according to statistics from the American Community Survey.

That pushes people out of the office for a time. It puts your workforce into the habit of working away from their desk so an emergency won’t catch them by surprise. Technology has helped in other ways. Different software systems allow workers to access their systems and files from anywhere in the world. People sign into a Website that allows them to work just as if they were at their desk. Smart phones and tablets give people many ways to connect to different systems and continue working.

People remember what they do. If the emergency process is something abstract, and in a plan no one reads, then any response will be rudimentary at best. People remember what they practice. Exercises should be used to not only test plans but also train people. These events push collaboration across disciples. Exercises help teams get to know each other. This later helps facilitate communication. People communicate better with people they know.

Planners need to break down everything each section is to do in an emergency. This would be called drills. They should be developed to embed and reinforce execution of fundamental skills. Drills can also teach the workforce things like how to use systems in areas other than the office. Organizations build on top of that. They move to exercises. They use scenarios and several drills to support preparedness. You build up the exercise progressively over time. This will eventually seek to overload in mission performance in order to build confidence across the work force.

As Babe Ruth put it, “The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” You will need more than just the expert when an emergency hits your area, you will need your whole team.

Magee-TomThomas Magee is a federal government civil servant with experience in emergency and continuity operations for several different agencies. He is also an Army Reserve Lt. Col. Officer with more than 28 years of experience including deployments to Operation Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom. He currently serves as an instructor in the Army Reserve teaching CGSC. Magee has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas and a master’s degree from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. He is also a graduate of several different Army schools and DHS programs. Magee is married and resides in the Kansas City area.