The seawall quote is one I heard when an associate of mine was talking about what happened when Ike made landfall just east of Galveston almost five years ago, sort of a BC riff on the best laid plans of mice and men. His company had tweaked their BC plan for far longer than most companies even knew what a business continuity plan was. They zealously practiced, they innovated, they researched and each year they did it all over again.
But their plan – every plan – is created with a specific set of alternative behaviors in mind. Each trigger point is supposed to be the result of A, B or C happening which in turn generates a pre-decided, often pre-negotiated reaction. Predeterminism is a continuity planner’s favorite tune until fate intervenes and instead of A, B or C you get . . . well, π.
As it became more apparent on the Friday night before Ike’s landfall that the storm was edging closer to Galveston, my friend’s company – with operations in Galveston, Texas City and along the Houston Ship Channel – decided to change a key element of their plan in regard to who should be deployed for fail-over, when they should go and where they should go. They had a plan, but they reacted based on emotion and the behavior of others. And they changed some of the most important elements of their plan at perhaps the worst possible time.
And everything worked out just fine. At least for that particular set of changes for that particular storm and while that’s not a unique outcome, had the decision to change the plan been made during the ramp-up to another storm, the outcome may have been different and far worse.
Take for example the difference between the post-landfall scenario of Ike, which didn’t occur just after Katrina, versus the unimaginable public response in the build-up to Rita which itself was precipitated so very much by the devastation wrought by Katrina a month earlier. (Researchers estimate that the pre-Rita evacuation of the Texas Gulf Coast was the largest single migration of a group of people in U.S. history.*) Two different storms, same approximate strength, same general area. Yet two entirely different outcomes. Changing their deployment plan worked during Ike but if they had decided to do the same thing during Rita, they’d have been screwed.
If the company had decided to deploy their key staff in the Rita scenario – and there are many examples of tragedies that occurred during the Rita evacuation – those people wouldn’t have been where they needed to be for another 12 to 24 hours after they left. And when they arrived . . . if they arrived . . . they’d be extremely tired, very hungry and in desperate need of a shower. In other words, they’d probably be a tiny bit moody and not at peak performance when they were needed the very most, which of course defeats the purpose of having gone in the first place.
It’s only because this company knew exactly how and when to adapt their plan, i.e., what they did during Ike, that they were able to avoid repeating the mistakes that so many other companies made relevant to Rita.
Adaptation is necessary for any response but discuss with your team early and often (and then yet again) what might happen if important elements of your plan are modified midstream. Color code your plan so that you know – or at least plan for as much as possible – which elements are written in stone and which are a little fuzzier around the edges. Don’t just expect the unexpected, expect yourself and your team to act in an unexpected manner.
Continuity Housing helps companies enhance their business continuity plans by pre-arranging guaranteed housing and providing logistical support for mission-critical employees during disasters.
* Section c, page 8: Richard D. Knabb, Daniel P. Brown, and Jamie R. Rhome (March 17, 2006). “Hurricane Rita Tropical Cyclone Report” (PDF). National Hurricane Center.